Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Does and should anyone care about just how and where child molester/gymnastics coach Larry Nassar rots in prison?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new CNN article headlined "Ex-USA Gymnastics doctor apologizes, pleads guilty to criminal sexual conduct." Here are the basics from the article, with the last quoted sentence and link of particular note for sentencing fans:

Larry Nassar, the former acclaimed USA Gymnastics team doctor, pleaded guilty Wednesday to seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and admitted in a Michigan court to using his position to sexually abuse underage girls.  Three of the charges applied to victims under 13, and three applied to victims 13 to 15 years old.  Other charges were dismissed or reduced as part of a plea agreement.  All 125 victims who reported assaults to Michigan State Police will be allowed to give victim impact statements at Nassar's sentencing in January, according to the plea deal.

Nassar made a short statement apologizing and saying he was hopeful the community could move forward. "For all those involved, I'm so horribly sorry that this was like a match that turned into a forest fire out of control," he said.  "I have no animosity toward anyone. I just want healing. ... We need to move forward in a sense of growth and healing and I pray (for) that."

Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said Nassar violated the trust of his patients, and she praised the victims for coming forward.... Dozens of women, including several gold-medal winning members of the famed "Fierce Five" team of American gymnasts, have accused Nassar of sexual misconduct in his role as the USA Gymnastics doctor....

In all, Nassar had been charged with 22 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and 11 counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct at the state level, Megan Hawthorne, deputy press secretary for state Attorney General Bill Schuette, told CNN in July.  Several of the first-degree charges pertained to victims under 13, and all of the state-level charges involve former family friends, gymnasts and patients of Nassar, Hawthorne said.

Separately, Nassar is also awaiting sentencing on federal charges of receiving child pornography, possessing child pornography and a charge that he hid and destroyed evidence in the case.  That hearing is scheduled for Monday.

The linked article at the end here details that Nassar's federal plea from July was to a series of federal counts with a "combined maximum of 60 years of imprisonment." For a host of reasons, I would expect the calculated guideline range for Nassar on his federal child porn charges to be life imprisonment, and I would predict that he will get a richly deserved statutory maximum sentence of 60 years imprisonment at his upcoming federal sentencing.  And because Nassar is in his mid-50s, this means he likely will be getting and serving a functional life sentence in federal court before he is even sentenced in Michigan on the state sex charges that he pleaded guilty to today.

The fact that Nassar likely will already be serving a functional federal life term before being sentenced on state charges does not, in my mind, make state proceedings unimportant or inconsequential, especially given that his victims may only have a chance to have their voices directly heard during the state proceedings.  But I asked the question in the title of this post because I wondered if anyone has a particularized view in a case like this as to whether it matters, symbolically or practically, just how a defendant who commits so many terrible crimes is subject to sentencing and prison service.

November 22, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, November 16, 2017

"Violent Crime: A Conversation; Is it rising or declining? Does it matter?"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Marshall Project piece that captures highlights of a conversation last month that included a number of leading criminal justice researchers and advocates.  I recommend the full piece, and here is the  introduction and parts of the first few reprinted comments:

Over the last two years, there has been a great deal of arguing about the prevalence of violent crime in America and how the national crime rate is changing.  The president and attorney general say it’s soaring. Criminal justice reformers aren’t so certain.  A Who’s Who of crime researchers and experts gathered to tackle the question at the Smart on Crime Innovations conference at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City last month.... These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity. You can watch the conversation in its entirety here.

Thomas Abt: Just to start us off, in 2016, the last year for which we have the official UCR [FBI Uniform Crime Reporting] data, there were 17,250 homicides. That's up 8.6 percent from 2015 and that comes on the heels of a 12.1 percent increase in 2014-2015. That adds up to about a 21 or 22 percent increase in homicide over two years, which is the largest two-year increase in 25 years. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that the rates of violent crime here in the United States right now are about half of what they were at their peak in the early 90's....

In some ways this question of, “Is this a trend?” is somewhat besides the point because in some ways it doesn't matter. The rates were already far too high, much higher than in other developed nations and especially too high for poor communities of color. One thing I want to get across is that this issue of violent crime, of homicide, is an important issue, literally a matter of life or death, whether or not there is a trend going on. And too often this issue is considered a political football that's carried back and forth.

Criminal justice reformers sometimes want to downplay the issue because they worry that this is going to impact the momentum for other criminal justice reforms. Other people want to exaggerate the issue, and so fear and division link this to other issues like a broader cultural war, or tough on crime, or law and order agenda about crime and immigration.  It's very important that there is a progressive criminal justice response to the issue of violent crime. It disproportionately impacts the constituencies that we reformers claim we care about, which is poor communities of color. The violence in these communities causes intense suffering and if we fail to address that suffering, it's a real disservice to them.

Adam Gelb: Put yourself back 10, 12 years. 2005, 2006 we had two consecutive years of increase in violent crime. And at the time there were dire warnings that we were headed back to the peaks of the early '90s. That did not come to pass, which was terrific and I'm not going to try to prognosticate here. But there are a number of reasons to think that we might be seeing a leveling off, maybe even a decrease.

But in 2007, so exactly 10 years ago, after these two consecutive increases, the attorney general at the time, Alberto Gonzales, issued a statement that I think captures pretty darn well exactly where we are today after two years of consecutive increases. I'm going to read it to you so I get it right. In a speech, he said, "In general it doesn't appear that the current data reveal nationwide trends. Rather they show local increases in certain communities. Each community is facing different circumstances and in many places violent crime continues to decrease."...

Jim Parsons: Yes, there's been this average aggregate increase, but in 68 percent of places, either the crime rate stayed the same or it went down.  So if you're thinking about making national policy, about making national policy decisions based on these crime rates, and if you have the theory that being more punitive or reacting to increasing crime is going to improve the situation, then that would not apply in two-thirds of places.  You'll be making a decision and trying to fix something that was not broken — or at least the trend suggests that things are not getting more dangerous — in two-thirds of places....

David Kennedy: ...[I]n all big cities ... and in lots and lots and lots of other cities there are particular communities that have — while they've come down usually from the worst years of the 1990s — people who are living in unconscionable conditions of persistent violence, trauma, and fear.  We as a nation have taken that as normal and so when things change, we focus on the change.  The scandal is what's normal.  And in this moment where we're debating these small changes and the national homicide rate had come down to between four and five per 100,000 and is now edging back up toward five.  There are communities all over the country where especially young men of color are experiencing persistent homicide rates of over 500 per 100,000 year after year after year after year. That's the story, and everything we know about the increases are that they are in those same places, those same communities, those same people.  This is not reaching out into different demographics. It's not reaching out into different communities. It's not reaching out into places that have not experienced this problem. It’s worsening among the people and places that have been enduring this forever.

November 16, 2017 in National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

West Virginia Supreme Court finds life sentence under recidivist statute violates state constitution's proportionality principle

During a recent class discussion on the future of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence as a limit on extreme prison terms, I mentioned the important reality that some state constitutions have punishment provisions with text providing defendants with more protections than the federal constitution.  For example, Article III, Section 5, of the West Virginia Constitution states: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted.  Penalties shall be proportioned to the character and degree of the offence."

Marc A. Kilmer is surely very grateful for the last sentence quoted above, because yesterday that provision led to the West Virginia Supreme Court, by a 4-1 vote, declaring his life sentence unconstitutional in West Virginia v. Kilmer, No. 15-0859 (W. Va. Nov 14,2017) (majority opinion available here).  Here are the essential from the start of the majority opinion:

Marc A. Kilmer was sentenced to life in prison under the recidivist statute based upon a predicate felony conviction for unlawful assault and two prior felony convictions for driving while license revoked for driving under the influence (DUI).  Mr. Kilmer argues on appeal that his life sentence violates the proportionality clause of Article III, Section 5 of the West Virginia Constitution because the two prior felony offenses do not involve actual or threatened violence.  The State asserts that the violence of the predicate felony for unlawful assault satisfies the goals of the recidivist statute and that Mr. Kilmer’s two prior felony convictions are factually similar to those in other cases in which we have upheld recidivist life sentences.  We conclude that the felony offense of driving on a license revoked for DUI does not involve actual or threatened violence and reverse the circuit court’s imposition of Mr. Kilmer’s recidivist life sentence.

The Chief Justice was the sole dissent to this opinion, and his dissenting opinion starts this way:

I dissent to the majority’s decision to reverse the petitioner’s recidivist sentence.  This sentence — life in prison with the possibility of parole — is mandated by the Legislature through West Virginia Code § 61-11-18(c) (2014): “When it is determined . . . that such person shall have been twice before convicted” of a felony, “the person shall be sentenced to be confined in the state correctional facility for life.” Id. (emphasis added).  Contrary to the majority’s conclusion, there is nothing constitutionally disproportionate about imposing a sentence of life with the possibility of parole upon a criminal who brutally beats and then sexually assaults an injured woman, when these violent offenses represent an escalation in the culprit’s existing felonious criminal record.

November 15, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

New report explores "Florida Criminal Justice Reform: Understanding the Challenges and Opportunities"

This press release provides highlights regarding this big new report from the Project on Accountable Justice examining Florida's criminal justice system and relatively high levels of incarceration. Here are excerpts from the press release:

The Project on Accountable Justice (PAJ) [has] released an interactive, web-based research report focused on the Florida prison system.  The report, entitled “Florida Criminal Justice Reform: Understanding the Challenges and Opportunities,” is an effort to help citizens and policy makers understand some of the dynamics that make Florida’s prison system large, dangerous, and expensive.

The report shows how short-sighted policies and practices drove the state’s prison population to higher than one hundred thousand people, and how Florida’s experience differs from those of other states like New York.  In discussing the underlying dynamics of Florida’s prison system — who is going to prison and why, who is in prison and for how long — the report demonstrates a trifecta of ineffective and expensive strategies: 1) too many people are sent to prison for minor and nonviolent offenses; 2) overly punitive sentencing policies — like mandatory minimum sentences — keep people in prison for exceptionally long terms that are too often incongruous with the nature of their crime; and 3) the unavailability of prisoner review systems and incentive structures to reward prisoners for good behavior prevent state officials from introducing release strategies that could safely reduce the prison population while also making it more manageable....

“Florida Criminal Justice Reform” argues that policy makers should know how the state’s criminal justice system measures up, and suggests some key metrics: Is the system fair and unbiased?  Are prison sentences reserved for dangerous people who pose a threat to public safety? What are the costs and benefits of the prison system, in terms of rehabilitation and public safety, or recidivism and expense?  As former Florida Attorney General and PAJ Chairman Richard Doran asks, “Do the current investments, practices, and policy strategies employed by our state’s criminal justice and correctional systems result in the returns Floridians expect and deserve?”

“Florida Criminal Justice Reform” is an accessible and interactive introduction to these questions. Among its findings are the following:

  • Nonviolent offenses drive prison admissions. Seventy-two percent of people admitted to prison in FY2015 were sentenced for a nonviolent offense.

  • In FY2015, the state spent $300 million to incarcerate people for drug offenses, and $107 million to incarcerate people for probation violations.  The vast majority — more than 70 percent — of people sentenced to prison for a violation of probation were on probation for a nonviolent offense.

  • Florida’s mandatory minimum drug laws cost Florida taxpayers $106 million in FY2015.

  • Florida’s criminal justice system does not adhere to basic notions of fairness: your ZIP code and the color of your skin can sometimes matter more than your behavior.

  • Statewide, black Floridians are 5.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white Floridians.

  • Residents of Panama City (14th Circuit) are 32 times more likely to be sent to prison for a VOP than people who live in Palm Beach (15th Circuit).

  • Statewide, black adults are almost twice as likely to be in prison for a drug offense than residents of the UK are to be in prison for any reason.

The report’s authors conclude with six recommendations, with guidance from previous research:

  • Enhance external oversight to improve transparency and effectiveness of Florida’s correctional facilities.

  • Build a risk-based system of pretrial practices to replace the current money-based bail system.

  • Keep youth out of confinement and the adult criminal justice system.

  • Review and modernize sentencing practices and policies.

  • Encourage local, community-driven solutions to crime through incentive funding.

  • Measure criminal justice success with better data collection and reporting.

“These reforms are possible and will make Florida a safer place to live and visit,” said the report’s lead author, Cyrus O’Brien. “A smaller system that judiciously reserved incarceration only for the purpose of incapacitating dangerous individuals would face fewer challenges and accomplish better results. Achieving a better system will require sustained, purposeful, and systemic reform.”

November 14, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 13, 2017

Interesting reviews of accomplishments and challenges in dealing with drug cases in West Virginia

At a time when there is so much talk about reforming how the criminal justice deals with low-level drug offenders, I found both encouraging and depressing this recent local story reporting on recent developments in West Virginia.  The article is headlined "Drug offenses straining already overburdened jail system, prosecutor says," and here are excerpts:

With its jails and prisons already bursting at the seams, Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Chuck Miller figures West Virginia is either going to have to come up with another way of handling drug offenders or plan on building more correctional facilities.  Miller recently discussed the available alternative sentencing options with a legislative committee tasked with looking at problems facing the state’s correctional system, points out jails and prisons here are understaffed and overflowing, in large part because drug addiction and the crimes associated with it have spiraled out of control.

How bad is it? According to the Department of Military Affairs & Public Security, 43 percent of the offenders processed at one of the state’s regional jails last year had to go through a detoxification protocol due to substance abuse issues....

It’s not a new problem, either. State leaders long ago realized the prison population was outstripping available resources and in 2012 decided to carve out a data-driven strategy to address it — realizing that, left unchecked, they’d have to spend at least $200 million to build more prison cells plus another $70 million a year in operating costs.  Rather than build more prisons, West Virginia opted to increase its reliance on community-based resources, including drug courts and day report centers.

They’ve not been without success: More than 1,300 adults and juveniles have graduated from drug court, typically an 18-24 month program that helps low-risk offenders.  As of March 2016, West Virginia’s drug courts had graduated 857 and 506 juveniles, in each case just over half of those who’d been accepted in the program.  About 500 more were still active in the program.  According to the West Virginia Supreme Court:

• Recidivism rates for adults after one year was reported to be 1.88 percent, and after two years, 9.4 percent — much lower than the nearly 80 percent recidivism rate for drug offenders who’d been incarcerated. Recidivism for juvenile graduates was said to be 14.6 percent, compared to 55.1 percent for youths in traditional juvenile probation programs.

• Per participant adult drug court program costs — about $7,100 for adults and $6,900 for juveniles — was a fraction of the per diem for housing adult offenders in regional jail (more than $17,000 per year) or prison (more than $28,000 per year).  Likewise, the state said it spent $6,900 to rehabilitate its juvenile drug court alumni — a fraction of what it would have cost to keep them in a secure juvenile facility, a group home or a hospital treatment facility.

Day Report Centers also provide intensive supervision and individualized services, including counseling, to non-violent offenders in lieu of incarceration, helping parolees reintegrate into society and saving millions in jail costs.  Kanawha’s Day Report Center, for example, said its program had saved more than $3 million in jail costs in 2016.  Since its inception in 2005, KDRC has graduated nearly 1,000 clients and had a recidivism rate under 13 percent.

Also in West Virginia’s sentencing toolkit: Pre-trial diversion agreements which allow first-time offenders to avoid jail by obtaining counseling and other treatment, and home confinement, allowing offenders to serve their sentence at home with electronic supervision in lieu of incarceration.  Participants generally must stay within range of a landline telephone and are subject to random drug and alcohol testing....

The programs aren’t without their challenges, however. Pre-trial diversions, for instance, require offenders to undergo treatment, but “availability of detoxification treatment facilities is sparce,” Miller notes.  Likewise, home confinement requires a home and a landline phone.

But, with an opiate epidemic showing no sign of slowing, he said West Virginia is going to have to find answers — even if means building a secure facility dedicated to treating offenders with drug dependencies, one they couldn’t walk away from, or expanding traditional jails and prisons.

“If we have a facility devoted to drug treatment, maybe we’d decrease crowding in our jails and increase our success with people,” Miller said, adding, “We’re not going to prosecute our way out of it and every solution ... requires money.”

November 13, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Boom and Bust of American Imprisonment"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper available via SSRN authored by Brandon Garrett. Here is the abstract:

We are teetering at the edge of a mass incarceration binge.  Lawmakers are reconsidering overly harsh criminal punishments.  At the same time, eight years later, people are still furious that elite criminals and CEOs avoided criminal punishment in the wake of the last financial crisis.  Many have complained that no Wall Street bankers went to jail. What do these conflicting tendencies mean? In this book review, first, I discuss the new book by business professor Eugene Soltes titled "Why They Do It," which explores psychological research on risk-taking by corporate criminals.  Second, I discuss law professor Sam Buell's "Capital Offenses," an engaging book that examines why it is so challenging to punish business crimes due to the structure of the economy, corporations, and our federal criminal justice system.  Third, I turn to law professor Darryl Brown's "Free Market Criminal Justice," which explores the role of free market ideology in the divide in American criminal justice. 

I conclude by exploring the implications of these arguments and this research for mass incarceration as well as corporate accountability at the high and low ends of our criminal justice system — we are finally turning a corner on mass incarceration in this country, and the problems and solutions that these authors identify partly explain why and whether better things or new fears lie around that corner.  We are at a crossroads.  We need voices of reason like Soltes's, Buell's, and Brown's, today more than ever.

November 13, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

"An Overdose Death Is Not Murder: Why Drug-Induced Homicide Laws Are Counterproductive and Inhumane"

Logo (1)The title of this post is the title of this big new report from the Drug Policy Alliance. Here is part of its extended executive summary:

The country is in the middle of a tragic increase in drug overdose deaths. Countless lives have been lost – each one leaving an irreparable rift in the hearts and lives of their families and friends. These tragedies are best honored by implementing evidence-based solutions that help individuals, families, and communities heal and that prevent additional avoidable deaths. This report examines one strategy that the evidence suggests is intensifying, rather than helping, the problem and calls for leaders to turn towards proven measures to address the increasing rates of overdose deaths.

In the 1980s, at the height of the draconian war on drugs, the federal government and a host of states passed “drug-induced homicide” laws intended to punish people who sold drugs that led to accidental overdose deaths with sentences equivalent to those for manslaughter and murder. For the first 15-20 years, these laws were rarely used by police or prosecutors, but steadily increasing rates of drug overdose deaths across the country have led the law enforcement community to revive them. Currently, 20 states — Delaware, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming —  have drug-induced homicide laws on the books.

A number of other states, while without specific drug-induced homicide statutes, still charge the offense of drug delivery resulting in death under various felony-murder, depraved heart, or involuntary or voluntary manslaughter laws. These laws and prosecutions have proliferated despite the absence of any evidence of their effectiveness in reducing drug use or sales or preventing overdose deaths. In fact, as this report illustrates, these efforts exacerbate the very problem they seek to remediate by discouraging people who use drugs from seeking help and assistance.

Although data are unavailable on the number of people being prosecuted under these laws, media mentions of drug-induced homicide prosecutions have increased substantially over the last six years. In 2011, there were 363 news articles about individuals being charged with or prosecuted for drug-induced homicide, increasing over 300% to 1,178 in 2016.

Based on press mentions, use of drug-induced homicide laws varies widely from state to state. Since 2011, midwestern states Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, and Minnesota have been the most aggressive in prosecuting drug-induced homicides, with northeastern states Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York and southern states Louisiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee rapidly expanding their use of these laws. Further signaling a return to failed drug war tactics, in 2017 alone, elected officials in at least 13 states – Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia – introduced bills to create new drug-induced homicide offenses or strengthen existing drug-induced homicide laws.

Prosecutors and legislators who champion renewed drug-induced homicide enforcement couch the use of this punitive measure, either naively or disingenuously, as necessary to curb increasing rates of drug overdose deaths. But there is not a shred of evidence that these laws are effective at reducing overdose fatalities. In fact, death tolls continue to climb across the country, even in the states and counties most aggressively prosecuting drug-induced homicide cases. As just one example, despite ten full-time police officers investigating 53 potential drug-induced homicide cases in Hamilton County, Ohio in 2015, the county still recorded 100 more opioid-related overdose deaths in 2016 than in 2015.

This should be unsurprising. Though the stated rationale of prosecutors and legislators throughout the country is that harsh penalties like those associated with drug-induced homicide laws will deter drug selling, and, as a result, will reduce drug use and related harms like overdose, we have heard this story before. Drug war proponents have been repeating the deterrence mantra for over 40 years, and yet drugs are cheaper, stronger, and more widely available than at any other time in US history. Supply follows demand, so the supply chain for illegal substances is not eliminated because a single seller is incarcerated, whether for drug-induced homicide or otherwise. Rather, the only effect of imprisoning a drug seller is to open the market for another one. Research consistently shows that neither increased arrests nor increased severity of criminal punishment for drug law violations results in less use (demand) or sales (supply). In other words, punitive sentences for drug offenses have no deterrent effect.

Unfortunately, the only behavior that is deterred by drug-induced homicide prosecutions is the seeking of life-saving medical assistance. Increasing, and wholly preventable, overdose fatalities are an expected by-product of drug-induced homicide law enforcement. The most common reason people cite for not calling 911 in the event of an overdose is fear of police involvement. Recognizing this barrier, 40 states and the District of Columbia have passed “911 Good Samaritan” laws, which provide, in varying degrees, limited criminal immunity for drug-related offenses for those who seek medical assistance for an overdose victim. This public health approach to problematic drug use, however, is rendered useless by enforcement of drug-induced homicide laws.

November 8, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Interesting account of "Five myths about white collar crime"

I just saw this notable recent commentary authored by Nicolas Bourtin, a former federal prosecutor, published in the Washington Post outlook section. Here is how the lengthy commentary starts along with the myth headings and the section most focused on sentencing:

Bankers and government officials continue to feature prominently on our newspapers’ front pages — and not in a good way. Since the financial crisis of 2008, a string of political and corporate scandals has played out in our political and financial centers, and recent investigations of people close to President Trump, including Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, have produced indictments for money laundering and tax fraud. Corporate malfeasance, corruption and tax fraud are shrouded in misconceptions. Here are five enduring myths about white-collar crime.

MYTH NO. 1: Prosecutors fear prosecuting powerful defendants....

MYTH NO. 2 White-collar defendants never serve real time.

In the wake of the financial crisis, publications such as Fortune and the Nation have sought to answer why its architects don’t do hard time for their crimes. “Why does the Justice Department appear to have given up on putting white-collar criminals in jail?” Fortune asked. When academics began studying the subject in the 1970s, they noted that federal judges were typically lenient toward white-collar offenders.

Those days are over. Judicial discretion in sentencing was greatly limited by the adoption of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in 1987, whose penalties for fraud were further enhanced after the Enron scandal broke in 2001. And although the Supreme Court held in 2005 that the guidelines were advisory and no longer mandatory for judges, sentences for white-collar defendants have been getting harsher, not more lenient.

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s 2013 Report on Sentencing Trends, nearly 70 percent of all offenders sentenced under the guidelines for fraud received some prison time for their crimes in 2012. In 1985, that rate was about 40 percent. For crimes that caused a loss of at least $2.5 million, the same report revealed that offenders were sentenced under the guidelines to an average of nearly five to 17 years in prison in 2012. In 1985, by comparison, the average sentence for white-collar crimes was just 29 months.

MYTH NO. 3 Trump’s administration won’t enforce anti-corruption laws....

MYTH NO. 4 No one went to prison as a result of the financial crisis....

MYTH NO. 5 Financial crime is the same as robbery or theft....

November 7, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Criminal Justice and the Mattering of Lives"

The title of this post is the title of this new article/book review authored by Deborah Tuerkheimer and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

James Forman's "Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America" is an extraordinary book, and it arrives at a pivotal juncture for criminal justice reform.  This Essay builds on Forman's rendition of "a central paradox of the African American experience: the simultaneous over- and under-policing of crime."  

It describes three areas in which legally marginalized groups currently struggle for state recognition of their injuries: gun violence, sexual violence, and hate crimes. It then offers a conceptual framework for future reform efforts that, by centering structural inequality, aspires to concurrently rectify the over- and under-enforcement of crime highlighted by Forman's careful work.

I refer to this inversion of the traditional criminal justice paradigm as an anti-subordination approach to criminal justice — one that makes salient the interplay between crime and entrenched social inequalities while pressing for a state response that alleviates, rather than exacerbates, the disempowerment of vulnerable populations.

November 7, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, November 03, 2017

Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl gets no prison time, Prez Trump not too pleased

As reported in this Fox News story, headlined "Bergdahl dishonorably discharged, no jail time after emotional trial," a high-profile military sentencing today prompted a high-profile response from the Commander in Chief.  Here are the details:

President Trump tweeted Friday that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's sentence -- a dishonorable discharge, but no prison time for leaving his post in June 2009 -- was a "complete and total disgrace."

More than eight years after Bergdahl walked off his base in Afghanistan -- and unwittingly into the clutches of the Taliban -- Bergdahl walked out of a North Carolina courtroom a free man Friday.  Bergdahl, who pleaded guilty to endangering his comrades, was fined, reduced in rank to E1 and dishonorably discharged -- but he received no prison time.

Trump, aboard Air Force One en route to meetings in Asia, tweeted his disapproval of the sentence.  "The decision on Sergeant Bergdahl is a complete and total disgrace to our Country and to our Military," Trump wrote.....

As part of the sentence, Bergdahl will forfeit his pay of $1000 per month for ten months.  Bergdahl was shaking and appeared emotional as the verdict was quickly read.

Bergdahl's defense lawyer has told reporters after sentencing that his client "has looked forward to today for a long time." Eugene Fidell added: "Sgt. Bergdahl is grateful to everyone who searched for him in 2009, especially those who heroically sustained injuries."...

Fidell told reporters that he looks forward to the appeals court reviewing Trump's statements as a candidate, which he appeared to reaffirm on the day Bergdahl pleaded guilty Oct. 16.  Addressing reporters before Trump tweeted about the sentence, Fidell said Trump had already caused one of the "most preposterous" legal situations in American history.  He said he looks forward to the appeal, adding: "We think there's an extremely strong basis for dismissal of the case."

Prosecutors had requested a 14-year prison term following a week of emotional testimony from the survivors who were wounded during missions to find Bergdahl after he left the base in June 2009.  Bergdahl's defense team had asked for no prison time.  Bergdahl faced up to life in prison for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.

Prior related post:

November 3, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (35)

"Multiple Offenders and the Question of Desert"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Youngjae Lee now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This essay, published as a chapter in Sentencing Multiple Crimes (Jesper Ryberg, Julian V. Roberts & Jan W. de Keijser eds., 2017) examines the bulk-discount approach to sentencing multiple offenders.  It argues that bulk discounts are not only appropriate and even mandatory from the just deserts perspective, but that as a general matter, there should be a substantial reduction in sentence for each additional offense when it comes to multiple-offense sentencing.

After providing specific examples of multiple offenders who were sentenced consecutively, the chapter discusses the relationship between culpability and character from the perspective of just deserts theory or retributivism.  It then advances the claim that sentences for multiple offenders should not reach the level at which the state would be communicating an unfairly and inappropriately harsh assessment of the character of each multiple offender.  It also considers the ways in which multiple offenders are more culpable than single-crime offenders and concludes by insisting that discounts for multiple offenders and premiums for repeat offenders are not inconsistent.

November 3, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Noticing how federal drug laws, rather than state homicide laws, are used to severely punish drug distribution resulting in death

One way the criminal justice system has been operationalized in response to the opioid crisis has been in the form of various state homicide charges — ranging from manslaughter to murder — being brought against persons who distribute drugs that result in the death of a drug user.  But this news report from North Carolina, headlined "How the ‘Len Bias Law’ of 1988 is being used to get longer prison sentences today," details how federal prosecutors can and will be able to pursue and secure more extreme sentences on drug offenders without ever bringing a homicide charge:

In 2015, local police and federal drug agents identified Walston as a major source of heroin in the Wilson, Greenville and Nash County area.  The investigators also confirmed that Walston sold heroin that led to a Wilson man’s death that year.  On March 27 that year, Sarah Anne Mollenhauer, 32, called the mother of the overdose victim and told the woman her son was not breathing, Higdon said.

Elton Wayne Walston was sentenced to 27 years in prison Monday after he was found guilty of distributing heroin that resulted in the death of a Wilson man in 2015. Walston, 66, was also found guilty of one count each of possession with intent to distribute heroin and illegally possessing a firearm and ammunition, along with four counts of distribution of heroin.

U.S. District Court Judge Louise W. Flanagan handed down the sentence, which was announced Tuesday in Raleigh by Robert J. Higdon Jr., the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Walston was sentenced under the U.S. Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which carries a mandatory minimum prison term of 20 years and a maximum life sentence, along with a fine of up to $2 million, Higdon said. The statute is also known as the Len Bias Law, named for the first-team all-American basketball player at the University of Maryland who died of a cocaine overdose in June 1986, two days after he was the second overall pick by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA draft.

A charge of second-degree murder might sound more imposing, but a conviction under the Len Bias Law usually results in a longer prison sentence, said Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Boz Zellinger.  Unlike in cases of second-degree murder, prosecutors do not have to prove malice, only that the victim’s death was caused by ingesting the drugs....

Higdon said the opioid crisis is a matter of life and death. The federal statute, he said, is needed to help combat a soaring epidemic that resulted in 60,000 drug overdoses across America last year.  He said 1,100 people died of overdoses last year in North Carolina, with three dying each day across the state.  “The death result law will be used more and more frequently,” Higdon said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon at the Terry Sanford Federal Building in downtown Raleigh.  “Our office, along with the entire U.S. Department of Justice, is determined to hold accountable those who deal these deadly drugs to enrich themselves. This prosecution is an example of that determination.”

U.S. Assistant Attorney Edward Gray said Walston first came to the attention of federal prosecutors after a member of a drug task force in Wilson reported a rise in heroin overdoses in the area.   In 2015, local police and federal drug agents identified Walston as a major source of heroin in the Wilson, Greenville and Nash County area. The investigators also confirmed that Walston sold heroin that led to a Wilson man’s death that year. On March 27 that year, Sarah Anne Mollenhauer, 32, called the mother of the overdose victim and told the woman her son was not breathing, Higdon said. The victim was at his brother’s home in Wilson....  Mollenahauer said she and her boyfriend left the home again at 1:30 a.m. When she returned at 5:30 a.m. she found the victim lying on the bathroom floor and not breathing. Emergency workers arrived and pronounced the man dead at 6:21 a.m., Higdon said.

Mollenhauer pleaded guilty to distribution of a quantity of heroin and aiding and abetting.  She was sentenced to nearly four years in prison.

Walston’s aunt, Emma Hardeman, a retired teacher who lives in Chicago, said Tuesday that her nephew is not the “big-time drug dealer” portrayed by federal prosecutors during his trial and at Tuesday’s press conference.  Hardeman said Walston was a former U.S. Air Force serviceman who suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome after serving in Vietnam. She said her nephew was a longtime “functional addict” who sold drugs to support his own habit.

“He was a nickle-and-dime person,” she said. “He couldn’t even keep the lights and cable on. He didn’t have a $100,000 and a 100 pounds of heroin when they arrested him. He was a victim, too.” Hardeman said prosecutors should have held Mollenhauer more responsible.  She said Mollenhauer and her boyfriend returned to the victim’s home twice as he lay dying to take money from his wallet to buy more heroin.  Hardeman said family members have met with several federal lawyers and intend to appeal Walston’s sentence. “We are not going to lay down and let this die without fighting back,” she said. 

November 1, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Will NYC terror attack become the first big federal capital case for Trump's Department of Justice?

Despite the fact that Prez Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder sometimes hinted at having some ambivalence about the modern death penalty, the Justice Department during the Obama era consistently pursued and secured federal death sentences against high-profile mass murderers such as the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof.  Now, sadly, we have our first high-profile mass murder of the Trump era in which the murderer lives on to be subject to criminal prosecution.  The headline, "NYC terror attack leaves 8 dead, several injured; suspect's notes pledged ISIS loyalty," and first few paragraphs of this Fox News report highlight some of the reasons I would expect this latest mass murderer to soon be facing a federal capital charge:

A suspect accused of plowing a pickup truck onto a bike path and into a crowd in New York City Tuesday, killing at least eight people and injuring 11 more, is not a U.S. citizen and is originally from Uzbekistan, federal law enforcement sources have confirmed to Fox News.

The suspected driver, 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov, had handwritten notes pledging his loyalty to the Islamic State terror network and shouted "Allahu Akbar" after the crash, law enforcement officials told Fox News. Saipov, who was shot by police, was taken into custody and remains hospitalized.

The suspect, from Ukbekistan, had a green card, a source told Fox News. Saipov came to the U.S. in 2010, and, according to The Associated Press, has a Florida license but may have been living in New Jersey.  Saipov was an Uber driver who had passed a background check, the company told Fox News.  It added that Saipov has now been banned from the app, and Uber has offered assistance to the FBI.

His notes, written in Arabic and pledging loyalty to ISIS, turned up in and near the vehicle, Fox News is told. In addition, The New York Post reported that investigators found "an image of the ISIS flag inside his vehicle."

Four of the injured were teachers and students who were riding on a short yellow school bus near Stuyvesant High School when they were hit by the suspect's Home Depot rental truck. One student remains in critical condition.

A victim killed in the attack was a Belgian citizen, Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister of Belgium Didier Reyners tweeted on Tuesday. Three Belgians were also injured.  Others killed in the attack were Argentine citizens, according to Argentina's Foreign Ministry. Argentine newspaper La Nacion reported five of the eight people killed were Argentines traveling in the U.S. on a celebratory vacation.

As I have said after other similar horrible mass killing incidents, jurisdictions that retain the death penalty presumably do so in order to have the ultimate punishment available for these kinds of ultimate crimes.  Especially because both Prez Trump and Attorney General Sessions have be express supporters of the death penalty, I would be truly shocked if Sayfullo Saipov is not soon a capital defendant.

October 31, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

You be the state judge: what sentence for autistic man whose first convictions resulted from years of fondling young girl?

Perhaps because we recently have been discussing mandatory minimum sentences for aggravated sexual offenses in my Criminal Law class, I was intrigued by this sentencing story out of the state courts in Kansas.  The piece is headlined "Judge to weigh input before sentencing child molester, including numerous letters supporting him," and here are the basics that set up the question in the title of this post:

In August a jury convicted James M. Fletcher, 35, of Lawrence, of five counts of aggravated indecent liberties with a child, for repeatedly fondling a girl over the course of more than two years, starting when she was 11. Under sentencing guidelines, even though he has no other criminal history, Fletcher faces up to life in prison with no possibility of parole for at least 25 years, plus lifetime registration and supervision if he were to be paroled.

Fletcher’s sentencing hearing was Monday, but a ruling was delayed until Nov. 9. Judge Peggy Kittel took under advisement a request from Fletcher’s attorneys to give him a lighter sentence than what the guidelines require. Kittel said she wanted time to weigh her decision “due to the length of sentence Mr. Fletcher is facing.”

His situation is unusual, Kittel said.  “What makes this case so hard is that Mr. Fletcher has no criminal history, yet is facing a lifetime sentence,” Kittel said.

The numerous letters of support from family, friends, neighbors and co-workers are “impressive,” Kittel said. Fletcher’s co-workers lauded him as a capable electrical engineer, intelligent and even “brilliant,” she said.  “And yet a jury found him guilty of betraying the trust of (the victim),” the judge said. “…He stands convicted of something, really, ethically and morally wrong.”

More than three dozen people attended Monday’s hearing.  That included the victim, who also testified at the trial, but most were supporters of Fletcher. None spoke, and neither did Fletcher other than yes and no answers to the judge, with his head otherwise bowed. Fletcher, who has been jailed since his conviction, appeared in shackles and inmate clothing. The judge did, through prosecutors, receive and read a letter from the victim with a picture that she drew, but the letter was not read aloud nor the picture displayed in court. The judge also referenced the many letters in Fletcher’s support that she received earlier.

Fletcher’s attorneys, Sarah Swain and Cooper Overstreet, emphasized his lack of criminal history, his strong support system — pointing to Fletcher’s wife, parents, relatives and friends in the audience — his model behavior while out on bond prior to his conviction and his proactivity in seeking counseling for what was described in trial as a sexual attraction to the teenage body type. “That’s a very rare thing,” Swain said. “These can only be positive steps, steps in the right direction.”

Swain also added that, prior to legislation known as Jessica’s Law, the crimes of which Fletcher was convicted would have carried a substantially lighter sentence. That law, in part, increased penalties for certain sex crimes against children. Defense attorneys requested a total sentence for Fletcher of two and a half years, or 29 and a half months on each count, running concurrently.

Prosecutor Mark Simpson said the defense's arguments were not compelling enough to depart from sentencing guidelines. In fact, Simpson said some of those same points made Fletcher’s crimes even worse. “She trusted him,” Simpson said of the victim. “He was able to have access to her in a way that she could not have been more vulnerable.”

A psychological evaluation of Fletcher concluded that he would not be able to “groom” a child because he had autism, Simpson said, but that diagnoses only came when Fletcher was 34 and seemed to contradict descriptions of him in the numerous letters of support. The same analysis concluded that Fletcher intellectualized and rationalized behavior, limiting the ability of any treatment to be effective, Simpson said.

Simpson said the crimes occurred in a house under the same roof as several of Fletcher’s relatives, who at one point even suggested that his “cuddling” was inappropriate. Simpson said Fletcher orchestrated the abuse in part by trying to convince the girl she was only dreaming it. “This was not one bad decision,” Simpson said. “This was ongoing — years of carefully planned abuse by the defendant.”

Prosecutors are requesting a sentence of life in prison for Fletcher.  Simpson said that if Fletcher were paroled after 25 years, he would have served the equivalent of five years of prison for each count. "That does not seem like an inappropriately long sentence to me," he said.

Fletcher was charged in Douglas County District Court in September 2015 with one count of aggravated indecent liberties with a child under 14, with four more counts added in May 2016.  Charges indicate Fletcher molested the girl from December 2012 through January 2015, when the victim was 13.  The victim told the jury that numerous times when she stayed at Fletcher’s house in Lawrence, he fondled her bare breasts under her T-shirt at night. She said sometimes she was awakened by the action but that she pretended to be asleep, and that afterward she felt “scared,” “confused” and initially passed off the encounters as dreams “to give myself a reason to not have to tell anybody.”

The girl said no one else saw the alleged molestation and that she never told anyone until February 2015, after a confrontation between Fletcher and her mother, where Fletcher told her mother he was sexually attracted to teens and worried he would develop an attraction to the girl.

This kind of case is the sort that, in my view, showcases why sentencing decision-making can be so challenging for judges and why modern mass incarceration in a consequences of so many choices by so many players in the criminal justice system.  As the article reveals, the severity of the sentence here appears to be the product of, inter alia, the legislature increasing punishments under Jessica's law, prosecutors bringing multiple charges, the defendant contesting those charges at trial, and the operation of state sentencing guidelines.  And still, it appears, the sentencing judge has authority to impose a sentence as low as only 2.5 years in prison or as long as a mandatory 25 years in prison.  If/when judges regularly max out sentences in these kinds of tough cases, prison populations will always be large.

This case also serves as a notable example of how many different ways one can characterize offense conduct and offender characteristics.  Is this case properly and usefully labelled a violent offense?  Is it properly and usefully labelled a first or a repeat offense?  Is this the worst kind of sex offense because of the age of the victim and the duration of the activity or would the label repeat child rape not fairly characterize the the criminal activity.  And is the defendant here clearly autistic?  Does that matter?  Is he at high risk to reoffend if he only serves 2.5 years in prison?  Might be be at higher risk to reoffend if he were sentenced to a longer prison term? 

October 31, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Monday, October 30, 2017

Interesting and encouraging new Gallup numbers on reports of crime victimization

Adj9kjn7qecu-5slyra5yqAs reported in this new posting from Gallup, "Twenty-two percent of Americans say a conventional crime was committed against their household in the previous 12 months, the lowest proportion since 2001." Here is more:

Over the past decade, the percentage reporting their household was victimized by any of seven different crimes averaged 26% and never dropped below 24%.

Gallup began computing its annual index of self-reported crime victimization in 2000.  The index is based on the "yes" responses from U.S. adults as to whether they or anyone in their household was the victim of any of seven common crimes -- ranging from vandalism to violent crimes -- in the past 12 months.

This year's drop in crime was not reported across all groups equally. Nonwhites and those with annual household incomes under $40,000 are about as likely this year as they were in 2016 to say their household had experienced a crime.  Some crimes were also much more likely to occur than others:

  • 12% said someone in their household had money or property stolen, down from 17% in 2016.
  • 10% were the victims of vandalism, down from 14% last year.
  • 3% had their house or apartment broken into, down from 5%.
  • 3% had an automobile stolen, compared with 4% in 2016.
  • 2% said someone in their household was mugged or physically assaulted, compared with 3% last year.
  • 2% said someone in their household was sexually assaulted, compared with 1% in 2016.
  • 1% had money or property taken by force with a gun, a knife, another weapon or physical attack, compared with 2% in 2016....

In all cases, the crime may or may not have been reported to the police. Some official statistics on crime rely only on counts of crimes reported to police, so they may underestimate crime incidence. Not included in the list are digital crimes such as identity theft or computer hacking, which will be the subject of a future Gallup report....

Americans ranked crime as one of the nation's most important problems two decades ago, but the combination of dramatically falling crime rates through most of the 1990s and the rise of other issues in the new century pushed it down the priority list of national problems.

With at least one in four American households victimized by crime every year from 2008 through last year, however, the threat of crime has continued to be a concern for many Americans.

Theories abound for why crime rates rise and fall, and it is too early to know whether this year's drop in reported crime will be sustained. But at worst, it ends the increase of recent years and, at best, it holds the potential to signal further reductions in crime in the future.

October 30, 2017 in National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Most California Jurisdictions Show Declines In Property Crime During Justice Reform Era, 2010-2016"

The title of this post is the title of this short research report that I learned about via email from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Here I how the email describe the report:

A new research report released today from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice examines local trends in California’s property crime from 2010 through 2016, a period marked by major justice system reform, including Public Safety Realignment, Prop 47, and Prop 57.  Despite the relative stability of recent property crime trends, the report finds substantial variation in crime at the local level, which suggests that recent crime patterns may result from local policies rather than state policy reform.

The report finds:

• From 2010 to 2016, property crime rates fell more than 3 percent statewide despite the implementation of large-scale criminal justice reforms.

• For every major crime except vehicle theft, more California jurisdictions reported decreases than increases in their crime rates from 2010 to 2016. For example, just 141 jurisdictions reported increased rates of burglary, while 367 jurisdictions showed decreases.

• Across California, crime trends have been highly localized. Of the 511 cities and local areas included in this analysis, 42 percent showed rising rates of property crime from 2010 to 2016, with an average increase of 12.8 percent, and 58 percent showed decreases, with an average decline of 18.1 percent.

• Many jurisdictions, especially those that began with higher rates of property crime, have devised successful policies and practices that are improving local safety. Jurisdictions that showed decreasing rates of property crime between 2010 and 2016 had higher rates at the start of the reform era than those showing increases.

"The divergence between the 213 cities that have shown property crime increases since 2010 versus the 298 cities with property crime decreases was so large — a 31 percentage point difference — that the two categories of cities actually swapped places. This striking result suggests that reform measures such as Proposition 47 are not the reason a minority of cities experienced crime increases." — Mike Males, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow

October 30, 2017 in National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

US Sentencing Commission releases new report on "Mandatory Minimum Penalties for Drug Offenses in the Federal System"

Cover_drug-mand-minVia email, I just learned that the US Sentencing Commission has this morning released another big notable data report on mandatory minimum sentences in the federal system.  This latest report it titled "Mandatory Minimum Penalties for Drug Offenses in the Federal System," and this USSC webpage provides links to the full report and particular chapters. That same pages also provides this summary and overview of the report's key findings:

Summary

Using fiscal year 2016 data, this publication includes analysis similar to that in the 2017 Overview Publication, providing sentencing data on offenses carrying drug mandatory minimums, the impact on the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) population, and differences observed when analyzing each of five main drug types.  Where appropriate, the publication highlights changes and trends since the Commission’s 2011 Mandatory Minimum Report.  Because drug offenses are the most common offenses carrying mandatory minimum penalties, many of the trends in this publication mirror the trends seen in the 2017 Overview Publication.

Key Findings

Building directly on previous reports and the analyses set forth in the 2017 Overview Publication, this publication examines the use and impact of mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses.  As part of this analysis, the Commission makes the 10 key findings:

1. Drug mandatory minimum penalties continued to result in long sentences in the federal system.  

2. Mandatory minimum penalties continued to have a significant impact on the size and composition of the federal prison population.  

3. Offenses carrying a drug mandatory minimum penalty were used less often, as the number and percentage of offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty has decreased since fiscal year 2010.  

4. While fewer offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in recent years, those who were tended to be more serious.  

5. Drug mandatory minimum penalties applied more broadly than Congress may have anticipated.  

6. Statutory relief plays a significant role in the application and impact of drug mandatory minimum penalties and results in significantly reduced sentences when applied.  

7. Additionally, drug mandatory minimum penalties appear to provide a significant incentive to provide substantial assistance to the government pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) and the related guideline provision at USSG §5K1.1.  

8. However, neither the statutory safety valve provision at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) nor the substantial assistance provision at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) fully ameliorate the impact of drug mandatory minimum penalties on relatively low-level offenders.  

9. There were significant demographic shifts in the data relating to mandatory minimum penalties.  

10. Although likely due in part to an older age at release, drug trafficking offenders convicted of an offense carrying a drug mandatory minimum penalty had a lower recidivism rate than those drug trafficking offenders not convicted of such an offense.

Kudos to the USSC for continuing to release timely and informative reports as debates over federal sentencing policies and practices continue.  I hope in coming days to find time to mine some more findings from this report that I would consider "key," and I welcome comments that flag any and all elements of this latest report that folks consider especially interesting or important.

October 25, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Can a defendant be given two maxed-out consecutive manslaughter sentences for killing one person?

The puzzling question in the title of this post would appear to be the remarkable issue that is now going to be considered by the top court in the Old Dominion State according to this local story headlined "Virginia Supreme Court will rule on Gregg sentencing."  Here is the press report that I am still trying to wrap my mind around:

Almost two years after a Fauquier jury found a Marshall man guilty of manslaughter, the legal debate over his prison sentence will go to the state’s highest court. The Virginia Supreme Court announced Friday that it will hear the prosecution’s appeal of a decision that would void one of two homicide convictions of Carroll E. “Tootie” Gregg Jr. in December 2015.

The circuit court jury recommended a 10-year sentence on each.  Judge Herman A. Whisenant Jr. exercised a state code provision that allowed him to add three years on each conviction, which he suspended. Mr. Gregg got a 26-year prison sentence, with six years suspended.

He shot and killed Junior Jordan Montero Sanchez, 23, just after midnight June 6, 2014. Mr. Sanchez and a towing company coworker had gone to Mr. Gregg’s Conde Road apartment to repossess a pickup truck for delinquent loan payments.

But, Warrenton defense attorneys Blair Howard and T. Brooke Howard II immediately objected to the pair of manslaughter sentences, contending that the U.S and Virginia constitutions protect individuals from being punished twice for the same crime.

A Virginia Court of Appeals panel last December ruled that the dual convictions — on two involuntary manslaughter charges, one of them for “unlawfully shooting at an occupied vehicle wherein death resulted” — constituted double jeopardy. The panel sent the case back to Fauquier County Circuit Court, where the prosecution would choose which conviction to apply.

But, the state attorney general’s office appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, which last week agreed to take the case.... “It will indeed be interesting to see the outcome in the Virginia Supreme Court,” Fauquier County Commonwealth’s Attorney James P. Fisher said.

The attorney general’s office handles most appeals of criminal cases that start with local prosecutors. Mr. Fisher has argued that the vehicle shooting conviction has different elements, even though state code labels it “involuntary manslaughter.”

The Virginia Court of Appeals ruling in this case is available at this link and it strikes me as eminently sensible.  Moreover, it has never really dawned on me to imagine that prosecutors could try to ramp up the punishment for a single killing by seeking multiple convictions and multiple consecutive sentences for every different type of possible homicide that the single killing might constitute. (For example, here in Ohio, we have nine different types of homicide and a drunk driver who kills one person might readily be found guilty of six different types of homicide.  I could never imagine a prosecutor looking to convict such a drunk driver of six different counts and asking for six max sentences to run consecutively on each count for a single killing.)

Perhaps I am missing something when I suggest it seems crazy for a defendant to be sentenced to two maxed-out consecutive manslaughter sentences for killing one person.  The local prosecutor and the sentencing judge obviously did not think this kind of doubling up was crazy.  Moreover, it would seem that Virginia Attorney General's office believes there is a legally defensible basis for pursuing a state Supreme Court appeal in order to preserve the double-max sentence imposed by the sentencing court. 

I would be grateful to hear in the comments if and how anyone can make the principled case for a double-max manslaughter sentence in a case involving only a single killing.

October 24, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (26)

Many (but not all) Massachusetts DAs come out against eliminating certain drug mandatory minimums and other proposed reforms

This Boston Globe article, headlined "In harsh letter, DAs pan Senate’s criminal justice proposal," reports on a notable letter signed by most of the District Attorneys of Massachusetts to oppose a set of state criminal justice reform proposals. Here is the start of the article (which includes a link to the letter to legislators):

In a blistering public rebuke, nine of Massachusetts’ 11 district attorneys came out Monday against major parts of the state Senate’s sweeping criminal justice bill, which is aimed at reducing the number of people caught in the system.  In a six-page letter that comes days before the chamber is set to take up the legislation, top law enforcement officials railed against what is a Senate priority.

Although they praise some aspects of the bill, overall it “undermines the cause and pursuit of fair and equal justice for all, largely ignores the interests of victims of crime, and puts at risk the undeniable strides and unparalleled success of Massachusetts’ approach to public safety and criminal justice for at least the last 25 years,” the DAs wrote.

The letter also marks a break among the top prosecutors, with the signatures of Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan and Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan — who is the chief law enforcement official of the state’s most populous county — notably absent.

The nine DAs are against eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes such as trafficking up to 100 grams of cocaine — one proposal in the legislation scheduled for a Thursday vote in the Senate. And they expressed particularly vociferous opposition to the part of the bill that would make those changes retroactive, allowing hundreds of drug dealers the opportunity to get out of prison early.   “Where exactly are the residents eager for violent drug traffickers to be returned to their neighborhoods?” they wrote. 

Advocates and senators say mandatory minimums are a failed tactic from the war on drugs, one that has unnecessarily ensnared generations of people, particularly from communities of color, in the criminal justice system. And making the repeal of certain drug mandatory minimums retroactive is important for equity, they say.

The DAs energetically oppose the provision that would raise the age of criminal majority to 19, meaning all but the most serious offenses committed by 18-year-olds would likely be adjudicated confidentially in front of a juvenile court judge.

Advocates and Senate leaders say scientific research shows young people’s brains keep maturing into their 20s, and it is appropriate for the law to acknowledge that evolution. They say it’s just common sense to treat all high school kids the same way, instead of punishing an 18-year-old much more harshly than a 17-year-old for the same crime.

But the DAs wrote that “adopting a law that enables anyone to declare that ‘I am not responsible for my actions, my brain is!’ is something no rational parent would accept, and creates a slippery slope.”

The DAs vehemently oppose rewriting the state’s statutory rape law, which currently makes sex with anyone under 16 against the law. The bill would legalize consensual sex between teens close in age — an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old, or a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old, for example. That provision is “both unnecessary and dangerous, especially to girls and young women,” the nine DAs wrote.  But advocates say a so-called Romeo-and-Juliet law is sensible, and criminalizing the sexual contact young people inevitably have with each other is not the best way to respond to it.

October 24, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 23, 2017

New study of Pennsylvania death penalty finds disparity based on race of victim and type of representation

This new local AP article, headlined "Study: Victim's race factor in imposing death sentences in Pa.," reports on some interesting findings of a big forthcoming report about the death penalty's application in the Keystone State.  Here are the details as reported by the AP:

A new study of capital punishment in Pennsylvania found that death sentences are more common when the victim is white and less frequent when the victim is black.  The report, which drew from court and prosecution records over an 11-year period, concluded that a white victim increases the odds of a death sentence by 8 percent.  When the victim is black, the chances are 6 percent lower.

“The race of a victim and the type of representation afforded to a defendant play more important roles in shaping death penalty outcomes in Pennsylvania than do the race or ethnicity of the defendant,” according to the 197-page report obtained by The Associated Press.

Penn State researchers produced the $250,000 study for the Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness, and its findings are expected to be incorporated into a separate, ongoing review of the state's death penalty that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has said could affect the death penalty moratorium he imposed shortly after taking office in 2015.

The report also found the prosecution of death penalty cases varies widely among counties, calling that variation the most prominent differences researchers identified. “A given defendant's chance of having the death penalty sought, retracted or imposed depends a great deal on where that defendant is prosecuted and tried,” they concluded. “In many counties of Pennsylvania, the death penalty is simply not utilized at all. In others, it is sought frequently.”...

Researchers with Penn State's Justice Center for Research said there was no “overall pattern of disparity” by prosecutors in seeking the death penalty against black or Hispanic defendants, but did detect a “Hispanic victim effect” in which prosecutors were 21 percent more likely to seek death when the victim was Hispanic.  Black and Hispanic defendants who killed white victims were not more likely than a typical defendant to get a death sentence.

In nearly a quarter of all cases, defense lawyers did not present a single “mitigating factor” to push back against the aggravating factors that must be proven in order to justify a death sentence.... With the exception of Philadelphia, which has a unique system for providing lawyers to those who can't afford them, defendants represented by public defenders were more likely to get a death sentence than those with privately retained lawyers.

Unlike studies in some other states, the researchers said there was “no clear indication” that defendants with private attorneys — as opposed to court-appointed counsel — were more likely to get a plea deal with prosecutors that avoided a death sentence.

Notably, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association released on Monday this press release about the report titled "PA Report Refutes Death Penalty Myths."  Here is how it starts:

A study on capital punishment decisions in Pennsylvania found there is no racial bias in prosecutors’ decisions or in defendants who receive death penalty sentences. The findings of the report are in direct contrast to the racial-bias narrative pushed for years by anti-death penalty advocates and are important new facts any discussion about capital punishment must recognize.

“This report’s conclusion is clear: capital punishment in Pennsylvania is not disproportionately targeted against defendants of color,” said PDAA President and Berks County District Attorney John Adams. “For so long, those who have sought to abolish the death penalty have argued that the race of the defendant plays the critical role in decisions about who gets the death penalty. This report squarely debunks that theory.”

The report, prepared by Penn State University researchers for the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness, has not yet been made public but was provided by an unknown source to the Associated Press. In it, the report clearly states that “[n]o pattern of disparity to the disadvantage of Black or Hispanic defendants was found in prosecutorial decisions to seek and, if sought, to retract the death penalty.” Similarly, according to the report, “[n]o pattern of disparity to the disadvantage of Black defendants with White victims was found in prosecutorial decisions to seek or to retract the death penalty.”

October 23, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Is There a ‘Rational’ Punishment for My Rapist?"

The title of this post is the title of this powerful personal article authored by Amber Rose Carlson.  I recommend the piece in full, and I hesitate to reprint excerpts for fear of diluting the potency of the entire piece.  But this excerpt perhaps will help prompt folks to click through to read the full piece:

“Imagine your rapist had been found guilty and sentenced in court. What would you want his sentence to be?” This was the question asked to me in January 2016 by my therapist during a session of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (E.M.D.R.) — a treatment that researchers tout as one of the best remedies for severe trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.

I was raped repeatedly during a three-year span from age 13 to 16. I was also subject to physical and emotional abuse during that time. I’ve since undergone years of traditional talk and group therapy with trauma specialists, and I am more healed today than I ever thought possible.  Still, recovering from trauma is a serious endeavor, and I hoped for more healing....

I’m not a proponent of the death penalty primarily because the flaws in our criminal justice system are egregious and increasingly well-documented. The thought experiment’s framing, however, circumvented my usual concerns about unjust sanctions. I know what my rapist did to me, so I know he is guilty. Worries about the inhumanity of capital punishment were also blunted in part because this was purely hypothetical and in part because of the inhumanity he exhibited those long years with his penchant for violence.

Although the death sentence seemed wholly appropriate, I still considered how I would feel if a judge gave my rapist a less severe punishment: a natural life sentence — a life sentence with no chance for parole without a successful appeal.  In this scenario, my feelings were just as clear: I would be slightly disappointed, but I would still feel mostly satisfied.  Anything less than a death or natural life sentence, I knew, would seem inadequate....

IN FEBRUARY 2016 — only weeks after the thought experiments with my therapist — the philosopher Jennifer Lackey published an opinion piece in The Stone. In the article, she uses her experience teaching philosophy to inmates to argue for the irrationality of natural life sentences.  Lackey bases her argument against natural life sentences on two reasonable claims: (1) people (criminals, specifically) can and do change in profoundly transformative ways, and (2) we cannot know the future.

For Lackey, the fact that we have good statistical evidence that criminals can and do change is especially problematic given our vast epistemic limitations regarding the future. “Natural life sentences,” she wrote, “say to all involved that there is no possible piece of information that could be learned between sentencing and death that could bear in any way on the punishment the convicted is said to deserve, short of what might ground an appeal.” Citing the possibility of prisoner transformation, Lackey then puts her question about rationality directly: “How is it rational,” she asks, “to screen off the relevance of this information? How, that is, is it rational to say today that there can be no possible evidence in the future that could bear on the punishment that a decades-from-now prisoner deserves?”...

I read Lackey’s article very soon after the thought experiments with my therapist. I noticed that Lackey’s argument easily applied to the death penalty, and I realized that the sentences I desired for my rapist were precisely the ones Lackey condemns as irrational.  Since nothing in her argument prevented me from applying her logic to my own desires, I had to wonder if her argument also concluded that I was irrational for desiring permanent punishments.  If it is irrational for the state to prescribe a permanent punishment given our epistemic limitations and prisoners’ likelihood for change, wouldn’t it be similarly irrational for victims to ignore these considerations?

There are, of course, crucial differences between victim’s desires and punishments carried out by the state. While sometimes the criminal justice system considers the wishes of victims and their families, the criminal justice system’s central aim is to protect the interests of the state and the community.  This aim does not always coincide with the interests or wishes of the victim.  Admittedly, there are often very good reasons for the state to ignore the wishes of victims.  But my concern is less about what the state should do in practice and more about what arguments that prioritize transformation say about victims who desire permanent punishments.

Here I will be blunt: it matters very little to me whether my rapist is transformed at some point in his life. It matters to me only to the extent that I will readily agree that it would be better if he became the sort of person who did not inflict violence upon others.  I would be very happy hearing that no other women would be harmed by him. But in terms of the punishment that he deserves?  Transformation does not matter to me.  And this is not irrational: There are many carefully considered reasons one might want a natural life sentence for perpetrators of egregious and irrevocable harm.

Desiring death or a natural life sentence for those who inflict traumatic violence is a rational response because whether or not my particular rapist transforms is irrelevant to whether or not I will ever have the chance to be the sort of person I might have been.  His transformation is irrelevant to whether or not I will be able to live the sort of life I could have were it not for the injustice done to me. I desire a death or natural life sentence for my rapist because that is what seems appropriate given the amount of damage he wrought in my life....

Although my attitude is in no way representative of all victims, epistemic arguments that prioritize criminal transformation must contend with the implication that they can be used to paint trauma victims irrational when they desire retribution.  It’s certainly important to advocate for prisoners who are wrongly incarcerated and for those who were victims of the overzealous war on crime era.  The injustices in our criminal justice system are too numerous and too serious to ignore. But criminal justice reform should not be so myopic that it compounds trauma survivors’ victimization.  Those who manage to survive traumatic crimes have enough to battle without arguments that undermine their rational considerations. Advocates for criminal justice reform can, and should, do better.

October 23, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

Reviewing publicity's role in federal sentencing decision-making

This new Forbes piece by Brian Jacobs, headlined "The Role of Publicity in Sentencing," reviews how a case's high-profile nature can play a role in a defendant's federal sentencing. Here are excerpts concluding with the author's closing criticism of "any substantial reliance on publicity as a sentencing factor":

Should defendants in cases that attract press coverage be given longer sentences than defendants in cases that pass unnoticed?  The knee jerk response of anyone familiar with the basic principle of equality under the law would likely be a resounding “no.”  And yet, as some recent cases have starkly demonstrated, courts can and do consider a defendant’s level of notoriety as a factor weighing in favor of harsher punishment.

The ability of courts to take publicity into account at sentencing traces back to Section 3553(a) of Title 18, United States Code, which provides a list of factors that district courts are required to consider in imposing sentence, including “the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant.”  One of the factors district courts must consider is “the need for the sentence imposed— to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct.”...

The extent of publicity a case has received and will continue to receive naturally figures into the analysis of whether a given sentence will further the goal of general deterrence.  As one commentator wrote some time ago, “[i]f a case has for some reason attracted great publicity, a severe sentence could be expected to have great deterrent effect.  If, on the other hand, the publicity is minimal and the sentence probably will be known only to the defendant himself and the officials involved with the case, the judge could let the offender off with a light sentence without sacrificing any general preventive effects.”

As evidenced by some recent cases, courts have generally followed through on this reasoning and have considered the extent of a case’s publicity as one factor weighing in favor of higher sentences.  In Ross Ulbricht’s appeal of his conviction for crimes “associated with his creation and operation of an online marketplace known as Silk Road,” the Second Circuit Court of Appeals condoned the district court’s consideration of the extent of the case’s publicity as one factor justifying the life sentence imposed. Specifically, the Second Circuit approved the district court’s reference to the general deterrence that would result from the “unusually large amount of public interest” in the case.  (Ironically, it appears that the Ulbricht’s life sentence and the attendant publicity, far from deterring crime, “actually boosted dark web drug sales.”)

By the same token, in sentencing former congressman Anthony Weiner to 21 months’ imprisonment for transferring obscene materials to a minor, U.S. District Judge Denise L. Cote made express reference to Mr. Weiner’s high profile: “Because of the defendant’s notoriety, gained well before he engaged in this criminal activity, there is intense interest in this prosecution, in his plea, and his sentence, and so there is the opportunity to make a statement that could protect other minors,” she said.  Judge Cote elaborated that, “[g]eneral deterrence is a very significant factor in this sentence.”...

But even as courts are required to consider general deterrence, the consideration given to a case’s publicity, in particular, should be minimal.  The use of general deterrence as a sentencing factor is inherently unfair to an individual defendant, to the extent that the individual defendant’s case is used as a “means for the public good.”  To base a defendant’s sentence on the extent of the publicity a case has received or will receive only exacerbates this unfairness, as notoriety has even less to do with the individual defendant’s case, and more to do with the whims of the press corps and the Department of Justice’s media operation.  In the long run, any substantial reliance on publicity as a sentencing factor, rather than deterring crime, seems just as likely to increase the risk that people will, as one commentator wrote, “find the system unjust” in violation of “the principle of equality before the law.”

October 23, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Should we call it the Sessions effect?: "enthusiastic" federal prosecutors operating at "full throttle" in the Southern District of Ohio

My local Columbus Dispatch has this fascinating new article highlighting an uptick in federal prosecution in the Southern District of Ohio.  The piece is headlined "Surge in prisoners prompts federal court to contract with northwest Ohio jail," and here are excerpts (with a few points highlighted):

Benjamin C. Glassman is costing taxpayers more money, and he’s OK with that. Glassman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, is reaching far and wide — very far, in some cases — to fight crime that could hurt Ohioans.

He persuaded the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to deposit four Ecuadorean cocaine traffickers caught off the Galapagos Islands for prosecution on his turf in Columbus. And members of the multinational gang MS-13 were charged in September with extorting money from Columbus businesses and laundering it back to the gang’s leadership in El Salvador.

The increase in the prosecution of violent crimes and drug cases such as these, especially amid the opioid crisis, had the U.S District Court for Southern Ohio looking for extra jail space to keep a record 483 defendants whose cases were pending as of Oct. 7. “That’s a lot for us,” said Chief U.S. District Judge Edmund A. Sargus Jr. 

Of the total defendants, 223 were up on drug charges, 43 for violent crimes and 38 for child pornography.

To prevent overtaxing the Franklin and Delaware County jails that hold federal prisoners, Peter C. Tobin, the U.S. marshal for the 48-county Southern District, recently contracted with a regional jail in Williams County, 150 miles northwest of Columbus, to hold some defendants.  So far, 30 defendants have been sent to the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio near Bryan.  That jail is charging $90 a day per federal inmate, about $25 more than the local jails.

Other federal court districts are having similar problems housing the influx of defendants, Sargus said.  The largest districts, such as New York City and Los Angeles, have their own holding facilities.

An Obama administration appointee last year, Glassman swears he’s not padding his crime-fighting resume because President Donald Trump could replace him at a moment’s notice. Ohio’s U.S. senators have recommended Greg Hartmann, an attorney and former Hamilton County commissioner, to replace Glassman. “We just want to reach out as far as we can and as far as we need to go to stop crime that is hurting people in this district,” Glassman said. “I sincerely believe people in Russia can hurt us, people in China can hurt us here.”

He spoke enviously of fellow prosecutors in North Dakota who this month “beat us to indicting” two men in China with selling fentanyl over the “dark web’ that has been tied to deadly overdoses. It was unclear whether Chinese officials have taken action against the suspects.

“We have violent crime initiatives in Cincinnati, and now Columbus, that are successfully bringing more violent crime prosecutions,” he said. Glassman’s office works closely with state and local law enforcement, counting on street cops to identify the “small number of people disproportionately responsible for a large number of violence.”  Suspects are charged in state or federal court depending on which nets prosecutors the best results, meaning guilty pleas and stiff prison sentences....

Glassman said his office is operating at “full throttle, with a lot of hardworking, really enthusiastic prosecutors.”  Individual assistant U.S. attorneys specialize in handling violent crime, drugs, illegal immigration, child pornography, tax and fraud cases.  Where only the top offenders in a drug ring were usually charged, now it’s not uncommon for cases to include a list of 15 or so defendants with even the most minor players. “We are looking to dismantle entire distribution organizations,” he said.

I find fascinating that even with a violent crime initiative and directions from Attorney General Sessions to focus on violent crime, this accounting of on-going federal prosecutions indicates that less than 15% of the current caseload (and maybe less than 10%) involves violent crimes (43 out of the 304 noted above, or maybe 43 out of the full 483).  Meanwhile, nearly half or perhaps even more than half of all the cases are drug cases, and now apparently even the most minor players in a drug ring are being subject to federal prosecution — no doubt in part because guilty pleas and stiff prison sentences are more common when drug charges are brought in the federal system.

I am inclined to call much of this a "Sessions effect" because the signals from the top of the current Justice Department would seem to be urging more and more federal prosecutions across the board (while also urging tougher approaches to sentencing).  I suspect it may be still some months before we see the full impact of these dynamics in federal sentencing statistics, but I also suspect I will be talking more about the Sessions effect in the months and years ahead.

October 22, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, October 20, 2017

Federal judge rules that Prez pardon for Joe Arpaio does not call for vacating his contempt conviction

As reported in this Politico piece, a "federal judge has ruled that President Donald Trump's pardon of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio ends his prosecution for criminal contempt of court, but does not wipe out the guilty verdict she returned or any other rulings in the case."   The full (and short) ruling is available at this link, and here is more about it:

In her order Thursday, Phoenix-based U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton rejected arguments from Arpaio's lawyers and Justice Department prosecutors that the longtime Maricopa County sheriff was entitled to have all rulings in the case vacated, including the guilty verdict the judge delivered in July after a five-day trial.

“The power to pardon is an executive prerogative of mercy, not of judicial recordkeeping," Bolton wrote, quoting an appeals court ruling. "To vacate all rulings in this case would run afoul of this important distinction. The Court found Defendant guilty of criminal contempt. The President issued the pardon. Defendant accepted. The pardon undoubtedly spared Defendant from any punishment that might otherwise have been imposed. It did not, however, 'revise the historical facts' of this case."

Arpaio, known for his tough stance against illegal immigration and for humiliating treatment of prisoners, was charged with contempt for defying another federal judge's order aimed at preventing ethnic profiling of Latinos. Trump pardoned the 85-year-old Arpaio in August while he was awaiting sentencing. The official White House statement stressed Arpaio's history of public service, but the president indicated in earlier remarks that he considered the ex-sheriff's conviction unfair because he was found guilty "for doing his job." Trump also said Arpaio should have received a jury trial, something courts have said is not required if no penalty of more than a year in jail is sought.

Arpaio's attorneys filed an appeal Thursday evening that will take the issue to the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. "We will challenge that order," Arpaio lawyer Jack Wilenchik told POLITICO shortly after the judge's ruling was handed down. He said Bolton had jumbled the facts regarding a key precedent: the case of a Tyson Foods lobbyist who was pardoned by President Bill Clinton after being convicted of giving illegal gifts to Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy.

The battle over the guilty verdict and other rulings is largely symbolic since the prosecution, the defense and the judge all appear to agree Arpaio's prosecution is over and he cannot be punished for the conduct that led to the case. Arpaio's attorneys argue it is unfair for the verdict to remain on the book since the pardon effectively wipes out Arpaio's ability to appeal that decision. However, some ethics-in-government groups and Democratic lawmakers urged the judge to reject the pardon altogether as an unconstitutional intrusion by the executive branch into the judiciary branch's ability to ensure that its orders are enforced.

A few prior related posts:

October 20, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

You be the Army judge: what sentence for Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP article headlined "Bergdahl guilty pleas leave room for drama at sentencing." Here is the context for the question:

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's guilty plea to charges of endangering comrades in Afghanistan has set up a dramatic sentencing hearing that could land him in prison for life.  Bergdahl, who was captured and held by the Taliban for five years after leaving his remote post in Afghanistan in 2009, pleaded guilty Monday in North Carolina to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, a rare charge that carries a potential life sentence.

Because Bergdahl had no plea deal with prosecutors, his punishment will be decided by the judge, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance, at a hearing starting Oct. 23.  Bergdahl was thoroughly questioned by Nance at his plea hearing at Fort Bragg, and the soldier acknowledged that his actions — and subsequent military search missions — put fellow service members in harm's way. "I left my fellow platoon mates," he told the judge. "That's very inexcusable."

At sentencing, the judge is expected to weigh factors including Bergdahl's willingness to accept responsibility by pleading guilty, his time in captivity of the Taliban and its allies, and serious wounds to service members who searched for him.  "Pleading guilty before a judge without any protection from a deal is a risky move," said Eric Carpenter, a former Army lawyer who teaches law at Florida International University. "The military judge can sentence Bergdahl to zero punishment, but he can also sentence Bergdahl to life in prison."

The guilty plea brings the highly politicized saga closer to an end eight years after Bergdahl vanished. President Barack Obama brought him home in 2014 in a swap for five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, saying the U.S. does not leave its service members on the battlefield. Republicans roundly criticized Obama, and Donald Trump went further while campaigning for president, repeatedly calling Bergdahl a "dirty, rotten traitor" who deserved to be executed by firing squad or thrown out of a plane without a parachute.

Bergdahl, 31, has said he walked away from his remote post in 2009 with the intention of reaching other commanders and drawing attention to what he saw as problems with his unit. "At the time, I had no intention of causing search-and-recovery operations," he said in court. "I believed they would notice me missing, but I didn't believe they would have reason to search for one private."...

Bergdahl's responses to the judge Monday were some of his most extensive public comments yet. He said he tried to escape from his captors 12 to 15 times, with varying degrees of success.  Once, he was on his own for about a week — hoping U.S. drones would spot him — before he was recaptured.  He said he also tried to escape on his first day in captivity. "As I started running there came shouts, and I was tackled by people. That didn't go so well," said Bergdahl, who spoke in even tones and wore a blue dress uniform.

Meanwhile, Bergdahl's fellow service members engaged in firefights that they could have avoided had Bergdahl not gone absent without leave, the judge said.  Those firefights left a Navy SEAL with a career-ending leg wound and an Army National Guard sergeant with a head wound that put him in a wheelchair.

As for the defense contention that Trump unfairly biased the court-martial against Bergdahl, a ruling in February found that the new president's comments were "disturbing and disappointing" but did not constitute unlawful influence by the soon-to-be commander in chief.

October 17, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Monday, October 16, 2017

Colorado judge finds state's statutory response to Miller unconstitutionally favors certain juve defendants at resentencing

This local article reports on an interesting (and quirky?) ruling from a Colorado state judge last week finding constitutional problems with how the state responded to the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment ruling in Miller precluding any mandatory LWOP sentencing for juvenile murderers.  The full headline of the article provides the basics: "Colorado law giving a break to some serving life for crimes committed as juveniles is unconstitutional, judge rules: Judge Carlos Samour Jr. ruled state can’t set preferential sentence for offenders convicted of felony murder." Here are more particulars: 

Part of a 2016 Colorado law that offers special sentencing considerations for some of the 50 people serving life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles has been ruled unconstitutional by an Arapahoe County judge. Chief District Court Judge Carlos Samour Jr. this week entered his ruling in a case filed by Curtis Brooks, who was sentenced in 1997 to life in prison without parole after his conviction for felony murder.

The law, Samour ruled, gives preferential treatment to Brooks and 15 other offenders convicted of felony murder, offering them reduced sentences of 30 to 50 years in prison, while 34 other convicts serving life without parole could get new sentences of life in prison with the possibility of parole.  “Under the circumstances present, the court finds that the challenged provisions grant the 16 defendants a special or exclusive privilege,” his ruling says.

Brooks had applied to have his sentence reduced under the law, which the legislature passed last year. Felony murder holds defendants liable for first-degree murder if they commit or attempt certain felonies, such as burglary or robbery, and someone dies “in the course of or in furtherance of the crime.” In Brooks’ case, the owner of a car was killed by someone else as they tried to steal the vehicle. Brooks was 15.

Although Samour’s ruling is very well-reasoned, it is not binding precedent, said Ann Tomsic, chief deputy attorney for the 18th Judicial District.  Other judges probably will read Samour’s ruling and base their sentencing decisions on what he wrote, she said.... Brooks’ attorneys, including Dru Nielsen, said they could not comment on the facts of the case. Nor would they say whether they would appeal Samour’s decision....

Samour concluded that because the portion of the 2016 law applying only to those convicted of felony murder is unconstitutional, he must sentence Brooks to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

The Colorado legislature said juveniles convicted of felony murder cannot be sentenced to life without parole. Had lawmakers passed a bill that applied equally to all people convicted as an adult for crimes committed as a juvenile, it would have been constitutional, Samour said.  “What the legislature could not do, however, is what it, in fact, did: arbitrarily single out the 16 defendants and bestow preferential treatment upon them,” Samour ruled. Emphasizing his point, he wrote that the legislature cannot act as a sentencing court or a parole board.

I was unable to find on-line the formal opinion in this case, but in doing a bit of research I found this other local Colorado article from August reporting on a similar decision by another state judge which explains that Colorado prosecutors are apparently the ones objecting to the new Colorado statutory rule providing for a lower resentencing range for juveniles previously convicted of only felony murder. Here is how this other article explains the legal dynamics seemingly in play:

In his ruling, Epstein found that the state Legislature exceeded its authority when it provided the possibility of a 30- to 50-year sentence for felony murder convicts. He granted a motion by the El Paso County District Attorney's Office that attacked the law on procedural grounds, arguing that the sentencing range is unconstitutional because the reduced sentence wouldn't be available to anyone convicted of felony murder before or after the 16-year period. One of Medina's attorneys, Nicole Mooney, said prosecutors in at least three other jurisdictions have filed similar motions, and suggested that prosecutors' success in El Paso County could encourage more challenges — and embolden judges to grant them.

Prosecutor Jennifer Viehman, who mounted the successful challenge, said the 2016 law violated the state Constitution's provisions for special legislation by creating a "closed class" of beneficiaries. "You can't just single out a little special class of people, and make laws just for them," she said. "That's what the judge agreed with." Without the chance for parole after 30 years, then only one sentence is available — life in prison with the chance for parole after 40 years.

I surmise from this second article that judges are finding the distinct resentencing provisions for those convicted of felony murder to be a kind of problematic "special" legislation under Colorado constitutional law. Without expertise in state constitutional law, I cannot quite be sure if that is a sound or suspect conclusion.

UPDATE A helpful reader sent me a copy of the 48-page opinion in the Brooks case, which can be downloaded below and has the following section in its introductory paragraphs:

For the reasons articulated in this Order, the Court finds that the defendant must be resentenced, but concludes that the statutory provisions authorizing a determinate prison sentence of thirty to fifty years with ten years of mandatory parole are invalid because they constitute prohibited special legislation under the Colorado Constitution. The Court, therefore, grants the People’s motion to declare the relevant statutory provisions unconstitutional and denies the defendant’s request for a thirty-year prison sentence with ten years of mandatory parole.  In light of these rulings, and based on the legislature’s intent, the Court determines that the defendant must be resentenced to a term of life in prison with the possibility of parole after forty years.

Download Brooks - Post-Conviction Order

October 16, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

LWOP+ sentence imposed for impaired driver who killed two in Florida

Long-time readers know I am sometimes inclined to complain about repeat drunk drivers getting lenient sentences unless and until they hurt someone.  But once an impaired driver starts hurting or killing, sentences then can often get quite severe.  A helpful reader alerted me to this notable local story from Florida reporting on the severest possible sentence imposed on an impaired driver in Texas headlined "Trucker gets life in prison on DUI charges from crash that killed two Naples women." Here are excerpts with emphasis on the sentencing particulars:

It was an impact statement about a moment of impact. “In one single second, my best friend, my wife .. my entire world came crashing down,” Dan Jenkins said, describing the horror as he watched a Kenworth tractor slam into a car driven by his wife on a rural Central Florida road in 2011. And it had the desired impact.

Circuit Court Judge Marcus Ezelle sentenced Michael John Phillips, 52, to life in prison plus 15 years for DUI manslaughter in the deaths of Jennifer Jenkins, 35, and Kathleen O’Callaghan, 34.

The two friends from their days as schoolgirls in Naples were killed as they drove toward Orlando for the birthday party of another friend. Dan Jenkins was following in a second vehicle, the couple’s 2-month-old daughter with him.

Phillips, found guilty by a Hardee County jury in August, could have been sentenced to as little as 25 years, according to state sentencing guidelines. But eight family members and friends gave victim impact statements at Friday’s sentencing, each asking Ezelle to impose the maximum penalty of life in prison. Ezelle went symbolically further, pronouncing a life sentence for one count of DUI manslaughter and an additional 15 years for the second....

In Florida, judges must sentence defendants based on a score tabulated in a pre-sentence investigation. Phillips’ score was 364.4. Had it been 363 or lower, a life sentence would not have been an option. Factors that boosted his score included drug arrests dating 30 years, a refused drug test while free on bond in this case and then absconding on that bond, which delayed the case for several months while authorities searched for him.

Defense attorney Kelley Collier asked Ezelle for a sentence of less than life in prison, in part because Phillips was just over the points threshold. He said Phillips, who tested positive for methamphetamine in his system, basically fell asleep at the wheel of the truck. “He does not have a conscious recollection of the accident,” he told Ezelle.

Falling asleep at the wheel is not a reaction one would expect from using methamphetamine, Collier said. “I would argue that the facts are not the kind of facts that would warrant that kind of (life) sentence,” Collier said.

Ezelle said the fact that Phillips didn’t intend to cause the crash wasn’t relevant. The manslaughter conviction, by its nature, presumes the guilty party didn’t premeditate the crime. Instead, the case was about creating risk that endangered others. “Mr. Phillips, by his decisions, weaponized a commercial vehicle,” Ezelle said.

Collier said he plans to file an appeal of Phillips' conviction, based in part on expert testimony he said should have been disallowed at trial. Family members had been frustrated by the slow pace of the case. It took investigators almost a year to charge Phillips. Friday’s sentencing occurred just two days shy of the fifth anniversary of those charges being formally filed in court....

Dan Jenkins said the life sentence will make it easier to explain the tragedy to his daughter, Ashley, now almost 6, when she asks about her “Momma Jen.” “Now I can tell her the man is in jail for the rest of his life. I can look at her and say that man will never hurt anybody again.”

I am pretty sure that Florida has no parole mechanism for these kinds of cases, so this life+ sentence is truly an LWOP+ sentence.  I am not so sure, but now wondering about, whether this defendant could have and would have received a much lower sentence had he been willing to plead guilty.  Relatedly, it is unclear what particular facts and factors were critical at trial for his convictions and how much "expert testimony" may have made a difference.  Whatever the plea/trial backstory, I now have another example for my students of how relatively common risky behavior can be punished severely when it results in particularly tragic harms.

October 15, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, October 13, 2017

Just a handful of headlines from the various front-lines of the opioid epidemic

I could readily fill this blog multiple times a day with tales of the opioid epidemic given the size and reach of the problem and the attention it is getting from many quarters.  In my view, the epidemic is, first and foremost, a public health issue.  But, as I say often on in this space and elsewhere, every major issues of public policy is a criminal justice/sentencing issue in some way.  These recent stories/headlined highlight these realities in various ways: 

October 13, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Big fine and community service, but no prison time, for law firm CFO convicted of fraud in NY state court

This Reuters article, headlined "Ex-Dewey & LeBoeuf executive avoids prison time after fraud conviction," report on the alternative sentence a notable lawyer received after a conviction for his law firm's notable problems. Here are the details:

The former chief financial officer of defunct law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf, whose collapse five years ago was the largest failure of a law firm in U.S. history, has avoided prison time after being convicted of defrauding the firm’s investors. Joel Sanders, 59, was sentenced on Tuesday by Justice Robert Stolz in Manhattan Supreme Court to pay a $1 million fine and perform 750 hours of community service.

The sentence was handed down five months after the firm’s former executive director, Stephen DiCarmine, was acquitted of the same charges, and 19 months after prosecutors dropped charges against its former chairman, Steven Davis.

“I‘m deeply sorry for anything I did or didn’t do that caused anybody harm,” Sanders said in court before being sentenced. His lawyer, Andrew Frisch, declined to comment on the sentence. Frisch said in May that he planned to appeal Sanders’ conviction.

The office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance had sought up to four years in prison for Sanders. The criminal case against Dewey & LeBoeuf’s executives was one of the most significant white-collar prosecutions brought by Vance since he took office in 2010. “This case demonstrates the Office’s commitment to prosecuting those who sacrifice professional integrity for financial gain,” Vance said in a statement on Tuesday.

The law firm, which once had close to 1,400 lawyers, went bankrupt in May 2012, unable to pay for the lavish compensation packages it had promised to recruit star partners. Prosecutors said the executives used illegal accounting adjustments between 2008 and 2012 to conceal the firm’s financial difficulties from investors in its bonds, including Bank of America Corp and HSBC Holdings Plc.

Seven lower-level employees pleaded guilty to criminal charges in connection with Vance’s investigation.

The first trial for the three executives ended in a mistrial in October 2015 when jurors, after four months of testimony and a month of deliberations, declared themselves hopelessly deadlocked on most counts.

After that trial, Davis struck a deal with prosecutors to avoid a second trial, agreeing to a five-year ban from practicing law in New York. Justice Robert Stolz dismissed the most serious charge, grand larceny, against the other two men. The second trial for Sanders and DiCarmine began in February 2017 and lasted about three months.

October 10, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Five notable GOP Senators introduce Mens Rea Reform Act of 2017

Download (3)As reported in this press release, yesterday "Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Mike Lee (R-UT), Ted Cruz (R-TX), David Perdue (R-GA), and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced legislation to strengthen criminal intent protections in federal law."  Here is more from the press release:

Their bill, the Mens Rea Reform Act of 2017, would set a default intent standard for all criminal laws and regulations that lack such a standard.  This legislation would ensure that courts and creative prosecutors do not take the absence of a criminal intent standard to mean that the government can obtain a conviction without any proof a guilty mind....

“Prosecutors should have to show a suspect had a guilty mind, not just that they committed an illegal act, before an American is put behind bars,” Sen. Lee said. “Unfortunately our federal laws contain far too many provisions that do not require prosecutors to prove a defendant intended to commit a crime.  The result is criminal justice system that over penalizes innocent acts which only undermines the rule of law."

“I’m proud to join Sen. Hatch in addressing one of the biggest flaws in our modern criminal justice system,”Sen. Cruz said. “Currently, the federal government can send men and women to prison without demonstrating criminal intent.  As Congress works to address criminal justice reform, the Mens Rea Reform Act needs to be enacted to protect the rights of all Americans.”

The press release includes "Statements of Support" from John Malcolm of the Heritage Foundation, Norman Reimer of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and David Patton of the Federal Defenders of New York.   And in conjunction with this bill introduction, Senator Hatch Senator Hatch yesterday delivered this speech on the Senate floor about the need for mens rea reform.  Here are excerpts from that speech:

Like many of my colleagues, I believe Congress has criminalized far too much conduct and has mandated overly harsh penalties for too many crimes. A number of my colleagues have sought to address these problems by cutting prison sentences, altering statutory minimums, or releasing prisoners earlier for good behavior. But as we seek to reform the criminal justice system, we must be careful not to overlook one of the major roots of the problem: the lack of adequate criminal intent requirements in federal criminal statutes....

Unfortunately, many of our current criminal laws and regulations contain inadequate mens rea requirements — and some contain no mens rea requirement at all. This leaves individuals vulnerable to prosecution for conduct they believed to be lawful.

In recent years, as Congress and federal agencies have criminalized more behavior, they have often been vague about mens rea requirements, or even silent about mens rea altogether. In a 2014 Tennessee Law Review article, Michael Cottone investigated how many federal criminal statutes there are in the US code. Mr. Cottone explained that “tellingly, no exact count of the number of federal statutes that impose criminal sanctions has ever been given.” Most scholars agree there are approximately 5,000 federal statutes that impose criminal sanctions. But those criminal statutes do not include the nearly 300,000 federal regulations that also carry criminal penalties.

With so many criminal laws on the books, it’s far too easy for Americans to break federal laws unwittingly, with no understanding whatsoever that their behavior is illegal. For example, did you know it’s a federal crime to write a check for an amount less than $1 dollar? Or that it’s a federal crime to allow a pet to make a noise that frightens wildlife on federal land? Even more incredibly, did you know it’s a federal crime to keep a pet on a leash that exceeds six feet in length on federal land?

Mr. President, these are only a few examples of unlawful activities that reasonable people could not reasonably be expected to know. What’s worse, many of these unlawful activities are punishable by time in prison. This is not only ridiculous; it’s immoral. The lack of adequate mens rea requirements in our federal criminal code subjects innocent people to unjustified punishment....

Our bill sets a default intent requirement of willfulness for all federal criminal offenses that lack an intent requirement. Additionally, the bill defines willfulness to mean that the person acted with knowledge that his or her conduct was unlawful. Naturally, our bill does not apply to any offenses that Congress clearly intended to be strict liability offenses. Our proposal has garnered widespread support from a variety of organizations, including the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Koch Industries, the Federal Defenders, the US Chamber of Commerce, the Federal Defenders, and the Heritage Foundation, just to name a few. Importantly, our bill does not remove any crimes from the books, nor does it override any existing mens rea standards written in statute. Moreover, it does not limit Congress’s authority to create new criminal offenses—including strict liability offenses.

Mr. President, mens rea really is a simple issue. Individuals should not be threatened with prison time for accidently committing a crime or for engaging in an activity they did not know was wrong. If Congress wants to criminalize an activity, and does not want to include any sort of criminal intent requirement, Congress should have to specify in statute that it is creating a strict liability offense.

I believe this simple legislative solution will go a long way in reducing harsh sentences for morally innocent offenders. It will also push back against the overcriminalization of innocent behavior. As I’ve said many times, any consideration of criminal justice reform or sentencing reform is incomplete without reforms to mens rea requirements.

I cannot yet find the full text of the Mens Rea Reform Act of 2017 on-line, but I suspect it is very similar if not identical to the previously introduced Mens Rea Reform Act of 2015 available here.  It does not seem that Senator Hatch was a cosponsor of the 2015 version of this bill, so I think it is a very good sign that Senator Hatch is now apparently leading the charge for this reform (and doing so by stressing that he believes Congress has "mandated overly harsh penalties for too many crimes").

As long-time readers recall (and as detailed in some prior posts below), there is reason to believe that misguided opposition to this kind of mens rea reform by the Obama Administration and some Democrats contributed to the failure of bipartisan sentencing reforms to make it through Congress.  I am hopeful (but not optimistic) that the current Administration is more supportive of this kind of mens rea reform; I am also hopeful that this bill might be linked to broader sentencing reform efforts and that both might get moving forward in the legislative process in the coming weeks and months.

Some recent and older related posts:

October 3, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Should New Jersey be more regularly championed for its profound success in reducing prison populations and crime rates?

New-jersey-clipart-toonvectors-5159-140The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local article, headlined "Why is the N.J. prison population shrinking? (It's not just about less crime...)," which highlights how and how successful the Garden State has been in reducing its prison population.  Here are excerpts from the article:

The big house is getting smaller. Fewer people are going to prison in New Jersey these days and the numbers continue to drop, according to an analysis of state Department of Corrections data over the past five years.

Those incarcerated in New Jersey — including men and women in prison, juveniles in detention, and detainees still in halfway houses — dropped this year to 19,619, from 21,123 in 2013. That marked a decline of more than 15 percent.

In fact, the state's inmate population has fallen more from its peak in the 1990s than any other state in the country, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based criminal justice reform group. Since 1999 — when more than 31,000 people were behind bars in New Jersey — the number of inmates has plunged by more than a third. "New Jersey leads the nation in prison population reduction," said Todd Clear, a prison policy expert at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice.

Crime has been going down in New Jersey in recent years. But that doesn’t really tell the story of what's happening in the state's prisons, according to Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project. "It's not necessarily one shift that can produce a shift of this magnitude," he said, attributing much of it to the creation of the state's drug courts that focus on diverting people from prison, as well as changes in the parole system that make it less likely someone will be put back behind bars for minor technical violations of their parole.

The corrections department data underscores the impact on how the state treats drug crime. The percentage of those serving time for drug crime is down more significantly than for inmates convicted of any other offense.... According to corrections department officials, a five-year phase-in under Gov. Chris Christie of mandatory drug courts for non-violent offenders, which was expanded to all 21 counties across the state, redirected thousands from state prison and into drug treatment programs.

At the same time, they credited the so-called "ban the box" legislation prohibiting employers from discriminating against people with expunged criminal records, as well as accelerating some expungements, increasing the type of convictions that can be expunged and reducing the waiting period to expunge an entire juvenile record, have given some inmates a better opportunity of finding a job and staying out of prison....

Department of Corrections officials said with the decline in inmate population, they have consolidated facilities and closed some units, reducing overtime costs. "This practice allowed us to undertake much-needed renovations in our facilities," said spokesman Matthew Schuman. "In fact, as part of our consolidation program, we closed Mid-State Correctional Facility in June 2014."

Mid-State reopened in April 2017 as the first licensed, clinically driven drug treatment program provided by the NJDOC. At the same time, a similar substance use disorder program for female offenders became operational at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.

Unfortunately, this new article does not address what has become of crime rates and recidivism rates during this period in which New Jersey has been shrinking its prison population, but I think the data is also encouraging.  Specifically, crime data for New Jersey here and here suggests crime has gone down as much if not more in NJ than elsewhere in the country and the state even seems to be largely avoiding the crime spikes that a number of other regions have seen in the last two years.  And this local article from last years reports that the state's corrections "Chief of Staff Judith Lang ... said New Jersey’s recidivism rate has lowered from 48 percent to 32 percent" thanks in part to state investment in reentry services.

Though outgoing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will be leaving office with very low approval ratings, the citizens of New Jersey and all those interested in criminal justice reform should praise his efforts in this arena and the broader achievements of all New Jersey policymakers and officials in recent years.  Especially if New Jersey continues to keep crime rates and prison populations low, the state will continue to be an important success story for modern criminal justice reforms that other jurisdictions should aspire to emulate.

September 27, 2017 in National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

DOJ seeking DC Circuit en banc review of panel ruling finding 30-year mandatory minimums unconstitutionally excessive for Blackwater contractors who killed Iraqis

In this post last month, I noted the remarkable split DC Circuit panel opinion in US v. Slatten, No. 15-3078 (DC Cir. Aug. 4, 2017) (available here).  I am now not surprised to learn from this news report that the "Justice Department asked a full federal appeals court Monday to review a decision to throw out the first-degree murder conviction of one former Blackwater Worldwide security guard and the sentences of three others in shootings that killed 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007."  Here are the details:

Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey B. Wall approved the decision, which was expected and filed by appeals lawyers for the department’s criminal division, to seek a full court review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, after a three-judge panel ruled Aug. 4.

The panel said a trial court “abused its discretion” in not allowing Nicholas A. Slatten, 33, of Sparta, Tenn., to be tried separately from his three co-defendants in 2014 even though one of them said he, not Slatten, fired the first shots in the massacre.  Slatten was convicted of murder.

By a separate, 2-to-1 vote, the panel also found that the 30-year terms of the others convicted of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter — Paul A. Slough, 37, of Keller, Tex.; Evan S. Liberty, 35, of Rochester, N.H.; and Dustin L. Heard, 36, of Maryville, Tenn. — violated the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”  They received the enhanced penalty because they were also convicted of using military firearms while committing a felony, a charge that primarily has been aimed at gang members and never before been used against security contractors given military weapons by the U.S. government.

The Justice Department filing called the panel’s sentencing finding “as wrong as it is unprecedented,” saying the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld longer sentences for lesser crimes. “By its plain terms, the statute applies to defendants, who used their most fearsome weapons to open fire on defenseless men, women, and children,” the department said. “Far from being unconstitutional, these sentences befit the ‘enormity’ of defendants’ crimes.”

The government also cited “legal and factual errors” in the ruling granting Slatten a retrial, noting the “great international consequence” of his prosecution for “a humanitarian and diplomatic disaster.” A retrial in “a prosecution of this magnitude (including reassembling the many Iraqi witnesses) poses considerable and uncommon challenges,” the department wrote, urging the full court to reconsider “in a case of such exceptional importance.”

In their own filing Monday, attorneys for the four men asked the full court to toss out the case on jurisdictional grounds and so reverse the panel’s finding that civilian contractors supporting the Pentagon could be prosecuted under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act....

A group representing family members and friends of the four tweeted a statement from Slatten last month that said, “Public outrage may be our only chance at true justice for all four of us. While it may be too early to seek pardons for my brothers from President Trump, he especially needs to hear from you.”

I have been meaning to write more about the extraordinary Eighth Amendment analysis in the Slatten decision, but I have been holding back in part due to my sense that en banc or even certiorari review may be forthcoming. The jurisprudential and political elements of this case are truly fascinating, and I really have no idea if the full DC Circuit and/or SCOTUS may want to take up this hot potato of a case. And in the wake of the Arpaio pardon, perhaps Prez Trump will be inclined to jump into the case at some point, too.

Prior related post:

September 26, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, September 25, 2017

Anthony Weiner given 21 months in federal prison after his plea to "transferring obscene material to a minor"

Anthony Weiner was scheduled to be sentenced at 10am this morning in the Southern District of New York federal courtroom, and apparently US District Judge Denise Cote did not need very long to figure out what sentence she thought fitting.  This AP piece provides a blow-by-blow, and here are excerpts:

A prosecutor has urged a judge in New York City to sentence Anthony Weiner to a significant prison sentence to end his “tragic cycle” of sexting.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Kramer told a Manhattan federal court judge Tuesday that Weiner on three occasions in 2016 asked a 15-year-old girl to display her naked body online and to perform for him. The prosecutor noted that sexting had already ruined Weiner’s congressional career and spoiled his run for mayor of New York City before he began interacting with the teenager. Kramer said Weiner should go to prison for between 21 months and 27 months....

Anthony Weiner called his crime his “rock bottom” as he spoke just before a judge in New York City sentences him for his sexting crime. Weiner fought back tears and occasionally cried Monday as he read from a written statement on a page he held in front of him in Manhattan federal court. He said he was “a very sick man for a very long time.” He asked to be spared from prison.

The Democrat’s lawyer, Arlo Devlin-Brown, had asked that Weiner serve no prison time....

Anthony Weiner has been sentenced to 21 months in prison for sexting with a 15-year-old girl in a case that may have cost Hillary Clinton’s the presidency.... Anthony Weiner must report to prison by Nov. 6 to begin serving his 21-month sentence for sexting with a 15-year-old girl.

As his sentence was announced Monday, the former Democratic congressman from New York dropped his head into his hand and wept, then stared straight ahead.  After the hearing ended and Judge Denise Cote left the bench, he sat in his seat for several minutes, continuing to cry.  Weiner was also fined $10,000.  After his sentence is served, he must undergo internet monitoring and must have no contact with his victim. He must also enroll in a sex-offender treatment program.  

Before announcing the sentence, Cote said there was “no evidence of deviant interest in teenagers or minors” on Weiner’s part.  She also said he is finally receiving effective treatment for what she said has been described as “sexual hyperactivity.”

 Prior related posts:

September 25, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Official FBI crime data confirms that 2016 saw another notable increase in violent crime and further reductions in property crime

Early markers suggested that violent crime was increasing in 2016 in the United States, after having increased in 2015 following record low violent crime rates in 2014.  This official FBI press release provides these basics:

The estimated number of violent crimes in the nation increased for the second straight year, rising 4.1 percent in 2016 when compared with 2015 data, according to FBI figures released today. Property crimes dropped 1.3 percent, marking the 14th consecutive year the collective estimates for these offenses declined.

The 2016 statistics show the estimated rate of violent crime was 386.3 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants, and the estimated rate of property crime was 2,450.7 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants.  The violent crime rate rose 3.4 percent compared with the 2015 rate, and the property crime rate declined 2.0 percent.

These and additional data are presented in the 2016 edition of the FBI’s annual report Crime in the United States.  This publication is a statistical compilation of offense, arrest, and police employee data reported by law enforcement agencies voluntarily participating in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program.  The UCR Program streamlined the 2016 edition by reducing the number of tables from 81 to 29, but still presented the major topics, such as offenses known, clearances, and persons arrested.  Limited federal crime, human trafficking, and cargo theft data are also included....

Of the 18,481 city, county, university and college, state, tribal, and federal agencies eligible to participate in the UCR Program, 16,782 submitted

  • In 2016, there were an estimated 1,248,185 violent crimes. Murder and nonnegligent manslaughter offenses increased 8.6 percent when compared with estimates from 2015.  Aggravated assault and rape (legacy definition) offenses increased 5.1 percent and 4.9 percent, respectively, and robbery increased 1.2 percent.
  • Nationwide, there were an estimated 7,919,035 property crimes. The estimated numbers for two of the three property crimes show declines when compared with the previous year’s estimates. Burglaries dropped 4.6 percent, larceny-thefts declined 1.5 percent, but motor vehicle thefts rose 7.4 percent.
As readers surely know, rising crime rates always provide fodder for politicians and others to championing tougher sentencing regimes, and we have heard both Prez Trump and Attorney General Sessions stress rising violent crime as a justification for certain policies. I suspect we may soon see these new FBI data appearing in speeches by DOJ officials and others, though folks eager to push back on concerns about a modern new crime wave have already been talking up the recent Brennan Center analysis discussed here suggesting crime rates may be stabilizing or declining in 2017.

At the risk of seeming a bit too Pollyannaish, I think the FBI report that property crimes in 2016 dropped for the 14th consecutive year is a big piece of the national crime story very much worth celebrating. Though violent crimes rates understandably get the most attention, property crimes impact the most people — there are, roughly speaking, more than five property crimes for every violent crime — so drops property crimes can end up meaning a lot more persons and families experienced a crime-free year even when there are spikes in violent crime.

I expect various policy folks will be mining this latest FBI data for crime-specific and region-specific stories. I will try to cover some of the coming coverage and analysis in coming posts.

September 25, 2017 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (6)

Sunday, September 24, 2017

On eve of federal sentencing, any final predictions (or desires) for Anthony Weiner's punishment for underage sexting?

As previewed in prior posts linked below and as set up in this new AP piece, the next chapter (and I fear not the last) in the sordid sorry story of Anthony Weiner will play out tomorrow in a federal court in New York.  Here are the basics:

It seemed as if Anthony Weiner had hit rock bottom when he resigned from Congress in 2011. "Bye-bye, pervert!" one heckler shouted as the Democrat quit amid revelations that he had sent graphic pictures of himself to women on social media. Time has shown his self-destructive drama had only just begun.

Weiner, 53, is set to be sentenced Monday for sending obscene material to a 15-year-old girl in a case that may have also have played a role in costing Hillary Clinton — former boss of Weiner's wife, Huma Abedin — the presidential election.

Federal prosecutors have asked for a sentence of slightly more than two years behind bars because of the seriousness of the crime, in which Weiner sent adult porn to the girl and got her to take her clothes off for him on Skype. "The defendant did far more than exchange typed words on a lifeless cellphone screen with a faceless stranger," prosecutors wrote to the judge. "Transmitting obscenity to a minor to induce her to engage in sexually explicit conduct by video chat and photo — is far from mere 'sexting.'"

But Weiner's attorneys contend he is a changed man who has finally learned his lesson, calling his compulsive sexting a "deep sickness" best treated without time behind bars. The memo also suggested Weiner himself was a victim of the scandal, saying the North Carolina high school student initiated contact with him because she "hoped somehow to influence the U.S. presidential election" and write a tell-all book.

I have just had a chance to review this short sentencing memo that the government filed a few days ago. I found remarkable both the stupidity of Weiner's decision to "sext" with in an obviously underage girl, as well as the government's conclusion that applicable guideline calculations produce "offense level of 33 [meaning] the resulting Guidelines range would be 135 to 168 months’ imprisonment, but for the statutory maximum of 120 months’ imprisonment."  Luckily for Weiner, the "the Government agreed that a sentence within the range of 21 to 27 months’ imprisonment (which would be the applicable Guidelines range without application of the cross-references) would be fair and appropriate under the specific circumstances of this case."  And the Government makes this assertion in support of a prison sentence in that range: "Weiner’s demonstrated history of professed, yet failed, reform make it difficult to rely on his present claim of self-awareness and transformation. On this record, a custodial sentence is necessary to truly effect specific deterrence and prevent the defendant from committing this crime in the future."

Meanwhile, in his lengthy sentencing memo includes, in its words, "Anthony’s own deeply personal meditation to the Court on sickness and recovery (Exhibit 1 to this submission) that speaks most powerfully to his progress."  It also asserts, I think accurately, that Weiner's "wrongful conduct is on orders of magnitude less egregious than any case involving sexually explicit communications with a teenager that has ever been prosecuted in this district" and that "factors the Court must consider under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) — in isolation and taken together — demonstrate that a sentence of imprisonment is not required here and would result in punishment greater than necessary to achieve the goals of sentencing."

So, dear reader, what do you expect Anthony Weiner will get at sentencing?  I tend predict a "split the difference" outcome in cases like this, so I would be inclined to expect a sentence of a year and a day for him.  Something even a bit shorter would not surprise me, and I would actually be surprised if Weiner got anything more than 21 months.  In the end, at least for me, I have a hard time viewing Weiner's extraordinary stupidity as the involving the kind of evil or danger that really justifies a long federal prison term. 

Prior related posts:

September 24, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Ohio intermediate appeals court, finding functional LWOP sentence excessive for multiple burglaries, cuts 50 years off term

A helpful former student alerted me to an interesting state appeals court ruling in my own backyard handed down last week. Even though the ruling in State v. Gwynne, 2017-Ohio-7570 (5th Dist. Sept. 11, 2017) (available here), is pretty brief, the issues raised by both the case facts and the state appeals ruling could occupy an entire modern sentencing course. Here are some snippets that should prompt sentencing fans to check out the full opinion:

Defendant-Appellant [stole] from at least 12 different nursing homes and assisted living facilities in both Delaware and Franklin counties over the course of eight years. Detectives were unable to connect all of the property to its rightful owners. During part of appellant’s spree, she was employed as a nurse’s aide.  After she was fired for suspicion of theft, however, she continued to dress as a nurse’s aide, in order to enter nursing homes and steal from residents while appearing to be a legitimate employee....

At the change of plea hearing, appellant admitted that she had been stealing from nursing home residents since 2004, four years earlier than the earliest charge in the indictment.  Some residents she knew and worked with, others she did not.  She claimed a cocaine habit was to blame, and that she took cash as well as other items to sell to support her habit.

At the sentencing hearing held on November 7, 2016, the trial court indicated it had reviewed the PSI, sentencing memoranda from the state and appellant, as well as the victim impact statements.  The state recommended 42 years incarceration.  Counsel for appellant advocated for intensive supervision community control, and a period of time in a community based correctional facility.

After considering all of the applicable sentencing statutes, and making all of the required findings, the trial court imposed a sentence of three years for each of the 15 second degree felony burglaries, 12 months for each of the third degree felony thefts, 12 months for each of the fourth degree felony thefts, and 180 days for each first degree misdemeanor receiving stolen property.  The court ordered appellant to serve the felony sentences consecutively, and the misdemeanor sentences concurrently for an aggregate of 65 years incarceration....

Appellant was 55 years old at the time of her sentencing....

We do not minimize the seriousness of appellant's conduct. On this record, however, we find the stated prison term of 65 years does not comply with the purposes and principals of felony sentencing....  A sentence of 65 is plainly excessive.  It can be affirmatively stated that a 65 year sentence is a life sentence for appellant.  Even a sentence of 20 years, considering the purposes and principles of sentencing and weighed against the factual circumstances of this case, would seem excessive.

The sentence is an emotional response to very serious and reprehensible conduct.  However, the understandably strong feelings must be tempered by a sanction clearly and convincingly based upon the record to effectuate the purposes of sentencing.  The sentence imposed here does not do so.  It is disproportionate to the conduct and the impact on any and all of the victims either individually or collectively.  It runs the risk of lessening public respect for the judicial system.  The imposition of a 65 year sentence for a series of non-violent theft offenses for a first-time felon shocks the consciousness.  We therefore find by clear and convincing evidence that the record does not support the sentence.....

We agree, however, with the trial court’s findings relating to the necessity of a prison sentence, and that consecutive sentences are warranted.  We therefore modify appellant’s sentence pursuant to R.C. 2953.08(G)(2) ... [to reach] an aggregate term of 15 years of incarceration.  Given the facts of this case, we find 15 years incarceration consistent with the principles and purposes of sentencing.

Though much can be said about this case, the scope of imprisonment considered at every level of this case startles me and yet I fear startles few others. Prosecutors, even after getting a plea, claimed that this woman at age 55 needed to be subject to 42 years incarceration, at the end of which she would be 97 years old.  The judge apparently decided that was not harsh enough, and thus imposed a sentence that would run until this woman was 130!  Thanks to an unusual appeals court ruling, this defendant now has to be grateful she will only be imprisoned until age 70.  Wowsa.

September 21, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Federal prosecutors say Anthony Weiner merits years in prison for his online sexual offense

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "Government: Prison fits Weiner's sex crime on teen victim," federal prosecutors have filed their sentencing recommendation in the Anthony Weiner case. Here are the details:

Former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner is more than a serial digital philanderer — he's a danger to the public who deserves two years in prison for encouraging a 15-year-old girl to engage in online sex acts, prosecutors told a judge Wednesday. A Manhattan judge is scheduled to sentence the New York Democrat on Monday for transferring obscene material to a minor.

The government urged the judge to put Weiner's claims of a therapeutic awakening in a context of a man who made similar claims after embarrassing, widely publicized interactions with adult women before encountering the teenager online in January 2016. Prosecutors said his conduct "suggests a dangerous level of denial and lack of self-control."

"This is not merely a 'sexting' case," prosecutors wrote. "The defendant did far more than exchange typed words on a lifeless cellphone screen with a faceless stranger. ... Transmitting obscenity to a minor to induce her to engage in sexually explicit conduct by video chat and photo — is far from mere 'sexting.' Weiner's criminal conduct was very serious, and the sentence imposed should reflect that seriousness."

Weiner, 53, said in a submission last week that he's undergoing treatment and is profoundly sorry for subjecting the North Carolina high school student to what his lawyers called his "deep sickness." Prosecutors attacked some of Weiner's arguments for seeking leniency and noted his full awareness beforehand of his crime, citing his co-sponsorship in January 2007 of a bill to require sex offenders to register their email and instant message addresses with the National Sex Offender Registry....

The government said Weiner's "widely-reported prior scandals" were not criminal in nature and did not involve minors but should be considered at sentencing because they reveal a familiar pattern. "He initially denied his conduct; he suffered personal and professional consequences; he publicly apologized and claimed reform. Yet, he has, on multiple occasions, continued to engage in the very conduct he swore off, progressing from that which is self-destructive to that which is also destructive to a teenage girl," prosecutors said.  They added: "Weiner's demonstrated history of professed, yet failed, reform make it difficult to rely on his present claim of self-awareness and transformation."

Defense lawyers had portrayed the girl as an aggressor, saying she wanted to generate material for a book and possibly influence the presidential election. Prosecutors responded that Weiner should be sentenced for what he did, and his victim's motives should not influence his punishment. A defense lawyer declined to comment Wednesday.

In a plea bargain, Weiner has agreed not to appeal any sentence between 21 and 27 months.  Prosecutors said the sentence should fall within that span, and they noted that Probation Office authorities had recommended a 27-month prison term.

Prior related posts:

September 21, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10)

Monday, September 18, 2017

"Why Did a Federal Judge Sentence a Terminally Ill Mother to 75 Years for Health Care Fraud?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this recent law.com article about a notable (and notably harsh) federal sentencing.  Here are some of the details, with some commentary to follow:

A federal judge in Texas sentenced a terminally ill woman to 75 years in prison last month for bilking Medicare — an apparent record sentence for the U.S. Department of Justice for health care fraud.

Marie Neba, 53, of Sugar Land, Texas, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon of the Southern District of Texas on eight counts stemming from her role in a $13 million Medicare fraud scheme.  Neba, the owner and director of nursing at a Houston home health agency, was convicted after a two-week jury trial last November.  At the sentencing on Aug. 11, the government recommended a 35-year imprisonment, said Michael Khouri, who started representing Neba as her private attorney shortly after the trial... 

The unusually lengthy sentence for what health care fraud legal experts call a relatively routine case has them scratching their heads, even in this recent era of the federal government’s crackdown on health care fraud.  Neba, the mother of 7-year-old twin sons, was diagnosed in May with stage IV metastatic breast cancer that has spread to her lungs and bones, according to Khouri, who has filed an appeal of the conviction and the sentence.  She currently is receiving chemotherapy treatments and is in custody in a federal detention center.  “Marie Neba is a mother, a wife and a human being who is dying. If there is any defendant that stands before the court that deserves a below-guideline sentence … it’s this woman that stands before you,” Khouri argued before Harmon at the sentencing hearing, according to a transcript recently obtained by ALM....

Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who heads the government interaction and white-collar practice group at Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale in Chicago, said given the circumstances, he would have expected Neba to receive a sentence of several years in prison.  “Nothing is surprising in that she went to jail and not for six months,” he said. “But how you get anything close to 75 years is beyond me and makes no sense at all.  In 35 years, I have never heard of the government’s [prison term] recommendation being doubled by the judge, particularly when the government is asking for a tough sentence anyway.”

Gejaa Gobena, a litigation partner at Hogan Lovells and former chief of the DOJ Criminal Division’s Health Care Fraud Unit, concurred. “We prosecuted hundreds of cases and never had a sentence approaching anywhere near this,” Gobena said.

Legally, the answer to how the long sentence came about is not that difficult: Harmon, applying several enhancements under the federal sentencing guidelines, imposed the statutory maximum prison term on each charge, and then ran them consecutively.  “I am not a heartless person. I think I am not. I hope I am not,” Harmon told Neba before announcing the sentence. “It must be a terrible experience that you are going through, Ms. Neba, and I don’t want you to think that by sentencing you to what I am going to sentence you to that I’m trying to heap more difficulties on you because I am not. … It’s just the way the system works, the way the law works. You have been found guilty of a number of counts by a jury, and this is what happens.”

Even so, historically, the case is highly unusual, breaking the previous record by 25 years.  Since a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in December 2007 that reaffirmed that the federal sentencing guidelines are merely advisory, federal trial judges have much greater latitude to impose what they think are appropriate sentences, even if the guidelines call for higher or lower sentences.  The longest health care fraud sentence prior to Neba’s came in 2011, when Lawrence Duran, the owner of a Miami-area mental health care company, was sentenced to 50 years for orchestrating a $205 million Medicare scheme that defrauded vulnerable patients with dementia and substance abuse. The next longest? Forty-five years in 2015 for a Detroit doctor who gave chemotherapy to healthy patients, whom federal prosecutors then called the “most egregious fraudster in the history of this country.”

According to court documents, Neba, from 2006 to 2015, conspired with others to defraud Medicare by submitting more than $10 million in false claims for home health services provided through Fiango Home Healthcare Inc., owned by Neba and her husband and co-defendant, Ebong Tilong. Using that money, Neba paid illegal kickbacks to patient recruiters for referrals and to Medicare beneficiaries who allowed Fiango to use their Medicare information to bill for home health services that were not medically necessary nor provided, and, all told, received $13 million in ill-gotten Medicare payments, the documents said.

Neba was convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud, three counts of health care fraud, one count of conspiracy to pay and receive health care kickbacks, one count of payment and receipt of health care kickbacks, one count of conspiracy to launder monetary instruments and one count of making health care false statements.

Four co-defendants, including Tilong, have pleaded guilty in the case. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 13....

Harmon, through her case manager, declined to comment on the case. The transcript, however, reveals several factors that influenced her decision to impose the lengthy prison term, including: “Most importantly,” Neba’s sentencing guideline range of life imprisonment (though Harmon was proscribed by statutory maximums from imposing a life sentence);..... Neba’s attempt to obstruct justice by telling a co-defendant, before arraignment in the federal courthouse, “to keep to her story,” specifically “not to tell anybody that she, [the co-defendant], was paying the patients.”

Neba’s decision to go to trial on the charges, rather than plead guilty and provide some sort of government assistance, also played a role in her sentence. Had she pleaded guilty to one or more of the charges “at the very beginning without obstruction of justice,” and received the highest credit for cooperation for doing so, Neba’s sentencing guideline range would have been 14.5 years, federal prosecutor William Chang told Harmon during the hearing. “Had the same thing happened and she received no [credit] whatsoever, it would be 21.8 years,” he added. “If she had gone to trial and been convicted, but no obstruction of justice, the sentence would have been 30 years on the calculation of the guidelines. So, we want the court to understand the United States’ principal position for what it seeks.”

Khouri, Neba’s attorney, said he plans to challenge on appeal the manner in which the sentencing guideline range was calculated and argue, among other matters, that the sentence is excessive.

I have quoted so much of this press report because the more details it provides, the more perverse the entire federal sentencing system seems along with the perversity of this particularly extreme sentence. For starters, though we supposedly have a federal sentencing system designed to sentence a defendant based principally on the seriousness of her offense, this defendant's guideline range ballooned from less than 15 years imprisonment to life imprisonment essentially because she put the government to its burden of proof at a trial and said the wrong thing to a co-defendant.

Trial penalty guideline calculations notwithstanding, now that the guidelines are advisory, a prosecutor and a judge would need to be able to justify such an extreme functional LWOP sentence based on all the 3553(a) statutory factors. No matter how seriously one regards health care fraud, I cannot fully understand how any of these factors (save the guideline range) can support this extreme sentence in this not-so-extreme case of fraud.  If reasonableness review has any substance whatsoever, and if the facts in this article are accurate, it seems to me that this sentence ought to be found substantive unreasonable.

September 18, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Noting judicial resistance (and legal questions) as Ohio law pushes judges to avoid state prison sentences for certain offenders

This fascinating article in the Columbus Dispatch, headlined "Some Ohio counties leery of Kasich program to divert low-level offenders from prison," highlights a novel and controversial new  sentencing law in Ohio that some local judges and official plainly dislike. Here are excerpts:

The 43-year-old career criminal broke into three Obetz businesses — a market and two pizza parlors — by smashing windows or door glass with rocks and concrete blocks over a four-day period last summer.  A Franklin County Common Pleas judge sent him to prison for two years, a decision that was upheld last week by the county court of appeals.  But under a program in which Franklin County will be required to participate beginning next July, the state will penalize the county for sending such an offender to prison.

The Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison program, approved by legislators in June as part of the state budget, seeks to reduce the prison population by diverting nonviolent, low-level felons to probation, local jails or community-based programs.  In return, the counties will receive grants from the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to offset the cost of supervising, treating or jailing those offenders in their communities.

The program, advocated by prisons Director Gary Mohr and Gov. John Kasich, has received opposition from judges and prosecutors across the state since it was proposed.  Most judges don’t like it because “it infringes on our discretion by telling us there are certain felons we can’t send to prison,” said Judge Stephen L. McIntosh, the administrative judge for Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

Some counties have decided that the grant money being offered by the state won’t be enough to cover the costs of keeping offenders in the community who otherwise would have gone to prison.  Others have offered a harsh assessment of a program that gives grants to judges in exchange for keeping certain offenders out of prison.  “Essentially what judges are being offered is a bribe,” Stark County Common Pleas Judge Kristin Farmer said in August when she and her colleagues on the bench encouraged their county commissioners not to participate in the program this year....

Franklin and Stark are among the state’s 10 largest counties, all of which are mandated under the law to participate in the program beginning July 1, 2018.  Franklin County’s Common Pleas judges will meet Tuesday to decide whether to participate in the program before the mandate kicks in, McIntosh said.  Last week, Cuyahoga County joined Stark in deciding not to implement the program until next summer. “The state’s offer of resources is completely inadequate to the demands that it will put on our local jails and our systems,” Armond Budish, the Cuyahoga County executive, said in a news release....

Under the program, offenders convicted of fifth-degree felonies, the lowest felony level, are not to be sentenced to prison unless they’ve committed a violent offense, a sex crime or a drug-trafficking offense.  The state correction department estimated that 4,000 such offenders were sent to prison last year.  If a participating county sends someone to prison in violation of the criteria, their grant money will be docked $72 a day for each day the offender is held in a state facility.

Clinton County Common Pleas Judge John W. “Tim” Rudduck has been participating since October in a pilot program to test the concept and is a vocal supporter of its benefits. “I’m looking at it from the perspective of a single judge in a semi-rural county with limited resources,” he said.  “The money we have received has been instrumental in developing resources (to support alternatives to prison) that we never had before.”  Before the program was implemented, some offenders were going to prison simply because Clinton County didn’t have the resources to treat or supervise them in the community, he said.

The program is voluntary for 78 counties. So far, 48 counties have agreed to implement the program....  A system in which some Ohio counties follow the program and other don’t is “patently unconstitutional,” said Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien.  The Ohio Constitution, he said, requires “uniform operation” of all laws.  That concept is violated when a defendant receives a prison sentence in one county for an offense for which he would be prohibited from receiving prison in another.

Those “equal protection” concerns are almost certain to lead to legal challenges for the program, said Paul Pfeifer, executive director of the Ohio Judicial Conference.  “I’d fully expect a test case to be filed on that issue,” said Pfeifer, a former state Supreme Court justice and state senator.  His organization, which represents all judges in Ohio, has expressed concerns about the program, but wants to work with judges to make its implementation as smooth as possible now that it’s the law, he said.

September 18, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, September 16, 2017

"Criminalizing Race: Racial Disparities in Plea Bargaining"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Carlos Berdejó available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Most of the empirical research examining racial disparities in the criminal justice system has focused on its two endpoints — the arrest and initial charging of defendants and judges’ sentencing decisions.  Few studies have assessed disparities in the steps leading up to a defendant’s conviction, where various actors make choices that often constraint judges’ ultimate sentencing discretion.  This article addresses this gap by examining racial disparities in the plea-bargaining process, focusing on the period between the initial filing of charges and the defendant’s conviction.

The results presented in this article reveal significant racial disparities in this stage of the criminal justice system. White defendants are twenty-five percent more likely than black defendants to have their principal initial charge dropped or reduced to a lesser crime.  As a result, white defendants who face initial felony charges are less likely than black defendants to be convicted of a felony.  Similarly, white defendants initially charged with misdemeanors are more likely than black defendants to be convicted for crimes carrying no possible incarceration or not being convicted at all.

Racial disparities in plea-bargaining outcomes are greater in cases involving misdemeanors and low-level felonies. In cases involving severe felonies, black and white defendants achieve similar outcomes.  Defendants’ criminal histories also play a key role in mediating racial disparities.  While white defendants with no prior convictions receive charge reductions more often than black defendants with no prior convictions, white and black defendants with prior convictions are afforded similar treatment by prosecutors.  These patterns in racial disparities suggest that prosecutors may be using race as a proxy for a defendant’s latent criminality and likelihood to recidivate.

September 16, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

In sentencing filing, Anthony Weiner asks for probation and community service after guilty plea to transferring obscene material to a minor

As reported in this new Bloomberg piece, "Anthony Weiner, the former congressman and New York mayoral candidate whose career and personal life were wrecked in a series of sexting scandals, asked a judge for leniency when he’s sentenced later this month." Here is more about his sentencing filing and what prompts it:

Weiner pleaded guilty in May to sending sexually explicit messages to a 15-year-old girl, admitting to a single criminal count of transmitting obscene material to a minor. The guilty plea capped a stunning downfall that played a major role in the final days of the 2016 presidential election.

In a court filing late Wednesday, Weiner asked for probation and community service.  “In sum, a term of imprisonment would bring Anthony’s indisputably successful treatment for the sickness underlying his crime to an immediate and complete halt, and separate Anthony from the son who has motivated his recovery,” his attorneys wrote in the sentencing memo.

“Given the unusual circumstances of this offense and the ability of a sentence without incarceration to impose just and meaningful punishment while permitting continued treatment, a non-incarceratory sentence of the kind proposed above would be ‘sufficient but not greater than necessary’ to satisfy the goals of sentencing.”

Weiner faces as much as 10 years in prison when he’s sentenced Sept. 25. As part of a plea deal, prosecutors will seek a term of 21 months to 27 months, which isn’t binding on the sentencing judge. Weiner must register as a sex offender and will forfeit his iPhone. An FBI investigation into Weiner’s sexually explicit messages turned up emails that had been sent to his wife, Huma Abedin, then a top aide to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton....

Weiner “has already been punished in a meaningful way by the government, just not in a judicially sanctioned manner,” his lawyers wrote in the memo.  “What was supposed to be a confidential grand jury investigation into a personal offense was leaked by ‘law enforcement sources’ and then improperly injected into the presidential election by the then-FBI director.”

Prior related post:

September 13, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Brock Turner: Sorting Through the Noise"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper recent posted to SSRN authored by Michael Vitiello. Here is the abstract:

This article begins with a quick test. The author asks his readers to spend a few moments reacting to “Brock Turner.” In response, no doubt, many think, “Stanford rapist,” “white privilege,” “special treatment for an elite college athlete,” and perhaps, “illegal sentence."  Certainly, that reaction is not surprising, given racial bias in sentencing and special treatment for elite college athletes.

The public response to Judge Aaron Persky’s sentence was quite negative even before Stanford Law Professor Michele Landis Dauber, a family friend of the victim, began a recall effort. The recall efforts have kept the case in the public’s eye.  While some members of the public and profession have spoken out against the recall, it seems to be on pace to get on the ballot in the fall of this year.

As troubling as Turner’s sentence is for many observers, issues posed by a judicial recall are quite distinct.  The article challenges the media for its role in inflaming public opinion about the case.  While the sentence seems far too short in light of Turner’s conduct, an examination of California sentencing criteria, as well as the probation report that Judge Persky relied on in determining Turner’s sentence, makes the case more complicated than widely reported in the media.  Even assuming that one disagrees with Judge Persky’s sentence, the article argues that California has led the nation in over reliance on long prison sentences, the result of all-too-familiar-get-tough-on-crime rhetoric. That has led the state to spend unnecessary billions of dollars warehousing offenders who do not represent a serious public safety risk.  The article concludes that judicial recall will result in unnecessary additional years of imprisonment for criminal defendants because judges, consciously or unconsciously, may fear for their livelihood if vocal members of the public deem their sentences too lenient.

September 13, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Monday, September 11, 2017

Can a federal sentence really "be close to absurd" and yet also be affirmed as reasonable?

The peculiar and perhaps metaphysical question in the title of this post is prompted by a Second Circuit panel decision today in US v. Jones, No. 15‐1518 (2d Cir. Sept. 11, 2017) (available here). The Jones case get intricate thanks to the timing and uncertainties of criminal history litigation. The start of the panel opinion provides a flavor of the mess:

Defendant Corey Jones appeals from a sentence entered in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Garaufis, J.) following a jury trial conviction for assaulting a federal officer in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 111. He was sentenced as a career offender principally to 180 months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release.  The primary basis for Jones’ appeal is that, in light of the Supreme Court’s holding in Johnson v. United States, 559 U.S. 133 (2010) (Johnson I), New York first‐degree robbery is no longer categorically a crime of violence under the force clause of the Career Offender Guideline, U.S.S.G. §§ 4B1.1 and 4B1.2, and that the district court therefore erred in concluding that his prior conviction for first‐degree robbery would automatically serve as one of the predicate offenses for a career offender designation.

After oral argument in this matter, the Supreme Court decided Beckles v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 886 (2017), which held that the residual clause of the Career Offender Guideline — a second basis for finding a crime of violence — was not unconstitutional.  The Court reached this conclusion notwithstanding the government’s concession to the contrary in cases around the country that the residual clause, like the identically worded provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), was void for vagueness. In light of Beckles, we find that New York first‐degree robbery categorically qualifies as a crime of violence under the residual clause and therefore need not address Jones’ argument based on the force clause. We also find that his sentence is substantively reasonable and therefore AFFIRM the sentence imposed by the district court.

Judge Calabresi (my former boss) authors a separate concurring opinion in which he explains the various factors and fortuities which he thinks requires an affirmance of a sentence that seems technically sound by infused with problems of timing and equity. I cannot briefly recount he are the curious particulars, but this sentence captures Judge Calabresi's obvious frustration:

What is more — and this may be the true source of my sense of absurdity — there appears to be no way in which we can ask the district court to reconsider the sentence it ordered in view of the happenstances that have worked against Jones, and in view of its assessment of Jones’ crimes and of its downward departure.

For what it is worth, I think reasonableness review can and should be a very flexible and robust means for circuit courts to require resentencing whenever it has a basis for being concerned, procedurally or substantively, with any aspects of the proceedings below in light of the sentencing commands of 3553(a). Consequently, I think the Second Circuit could have said simply that "happenstances that have worked against Jones" since the time of his initial sentencing cast new light on the 3553(a) factors and thus his sentence is procedurally unreasonable and he should be resentenced.

September 11, 2017 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Notable data on marijuana case processing after Brooklyn DA pledge to limit prosecutions

Marijuana-cases-chart-07This WNYC piece provides some interesting data about local marijuana prosecutions in a part of NYC.  The piece's headline provides the essential highlights: "Brooklyn DA's Pledge to Reduce Marijuana Prosecutions Makes Little Difference." And here are some of the details:

In 2014, Brooklyn’s new District Attorney Ken Thompson made national headlines when he said his office would decline to prosecute low-level marijuana cases, so long as the defendant had no serious criminal record and wasn’t selling the drug.

Noting that two-thirds of these misdemeanor cases wind up being dismissed, Thompson said they did nothing to promote safety and wound up hurting people of color, in particular. “In 2012, over 12,000 people in Brooklyn were arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana,” he said, during his inauguration. “Mostly young black men.”

Thompson died of cancer last autumn. He was replaced (at his own request) by his first deputy, Eric Gonzalez, who continued the marijuana policy. But according to WNYC’s analysis, this supposedly groundbreaking change had less impact than many expected.

Using data from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, WNYC found the Brooklyn DA was only slightly less likely to prosecute people for marijuana possession after Thompson took office in 2014. In 2010, almost 90 percent of arrests were prosecuted. That figure fell to almost 78 percent in 2014, and in 2016 roughly 82 percent of arrests were prosecuted. In other words, most people are still going to court because the Brooklyn DA only throws out about one out of every five low-level marijuana arrests.

“I expected to see the number to be higher,” said Kassandra Frederique, New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports marijuana legalization.

WNYC also found racial disparities among those who benefited most from the DA’s policy. Last year, the Brooklyn DA declined to prosecute fewer than 20 percent of misdemeanor marijuana arrests involving blacks and Latinos. By contrast, that figure was more than 30 percent for whites and Asians.

Marijuana-cases-chart-08Scott Hechinger, a senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, which represents low-income people, said he wasn’t surprised by any of this. “It still felt like the people who we were meeting were predominantly black and brown,” he said, when asked what changed after 2014. “And it still felt like an enormous waste of time, energy and money.”...

Gonzalez, the acting district attorney, has a theory for why most defendants are still prosecuted, like Iglesias. “One of the things about our marijuana policy was that it was limited to possession cases,” he explained in an interview with WNYC. “What we think may be happening is that a lot of these arrests is public smoking of marijuana.”

In other words, the district attorney's office still prosecutes those caught puffing a joint in a public place. That’s something many people didn’t fully grasp in 2014 when Thompson announced the policy change.

Both smoking and possession are classified by the state as the same misdemeanor (criminal possession in the fifth degree), the most common low-level charge. There was no way to separate smoking from mere possession from the data provided WNYC. (Several people WNYC interviewed at Brooklyn Criminal Court said they were arrested for smoking in public, including a 17-year-old boy who claimed the police nabbed him in a case of mistaken identity. All of the defendants we met were black or Latino and young.)

Gonzalez, who is running to hold onto his position this fall, said he was troubled by WNYC's finding that blacks and Latinos are more likely to be prosecuted. “I am committed to making sure my office does not contribute to racial disparities," he said. "If it takes me to be more aggressive in declining to prosecute more cases I’m willing to do that."...

Public defenders and legalization advocates now say there is only one way to correct the racial imbalance. They want the DA to stop prosecuting all marijuana cases. “This goes to a deeper need for us to talk institutionally about how the systems work for certain groups of people,” said Frederique.

But Gonzalez, the acting DA, argued that his policy is achieving positive results. Brooklyn declines to prosecute a greater share of cases than any other borough. He also said the DA’s policy put more pressure on the NYPD to make fewer arrests. Almost 17,000 people were arrested for low level marijuana possession in 2010. That number fell to 4,300 in 2016. “We’ve moved a long way,” he stated. “I’m committed to continuing to look at this issue and figuring out, can we have a system in which no one gets arrested for marijuana use where there’s no public safety value?”

Normally I would flag a story focused on marijuana over at my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog, but the case-processing and prosecutorial discretion issues raised here are surely of interest to sentencing fans.  And this post also provides an excuse to review some recent posts of note from MLP&R:

September 10, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 08, 2017

Highlighting through St. Louis the enduring challenges of battling city crime with federal emphasis

Mark Obbie has this terrific lengthy new piece in Politico Magazine with full headline that captures its key themes: "Why Jeff Sessions’ Recycled Crime-Fighting Strategy Is Doomed to Fail: Funneling more gun criminals into federal prison won't reduce homicides. Just look at St. Louis." The article merits a full read, and here are its opening passages:

Newly minted Attorney General Jeff Sessions was in St. Louis, the latest stop on his tour to promote his muscular solution to what he called the “dangerous new trend” of the rising national violent crime rate.  Addressing a crowd of more than 200 federal and local law enforcement officials at the city’s towering federal courthouse in late March, he vowed to “use every lawful tool we have to get the most dangerous offenders off America’s streets.”

The Trump Justice Department has pushed a variety of strategies for reducing violent crime.  But the tool that Sessions prefers, the one he calls the “excellent model,” is to steer more gun-crime cases to federal court, where offenders face an average of six years in prison, compared with the lighter punishments that can result from state convictions — in Missouri, for instance, gun offenders charged under state laws generally get probation.  Sessions has instructed his U.S. attorneys to step up their gun-case loads, and they are heeding his mandate: In the second quarter of this year, federal firearms prosecutions jumped 23 percent over the same period in 2016.

In his St. Louis speech, Sessions praised the city’s U.S. attorney’s office for its aggressive pursuit of gun-law violators, framing its work as the first half of a tidy formula. “The more of them we put in jail,” he said, “the fewer murders we will have.”

But Sessions is dramatically overselling the effectiveness of his prosecution-heavy prescription, those who study gun violence say.  Researchers, in fact, long ago concluded that the long prison sentences and elevated incarceration rates that result from increasing federal prosecutions have scant influence on violent crime rates.  And St. Louis is a signal example of why Sessions’ strategy does not work as he promises.

No other city has already tried harder and longer to do exactly what Sessions is pushing for nationwide.  Since the 1990s, the St. Louis-based Eastern District of Missouri has remained in the top 10 federal court districts for per capita gun prosecution rates, according to data from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).  In more recent years, the St. Louis office has only increased its intake of gun cases, leading the nation in 2016.

At the same time, St. Louis’ rates of homicide and serious crimes of all types are the worst in the country, and have been stuck at or near the top of that dubious list for at least 20 years.  The city recorded 188 homicides in each of the past two years — a two-decade high.  During the first six months of 2017, murders kept pace with those brutal levels. Nonfatal shootings were up an alarming 22 percent.

If St. Louis shows why Sessions’ approach to gun violence is destined to fail, what is a more effective role for federal authorities to play in reducing violent crime?  Public safety scholars say that it starts with recognizing that no two cities’ crime problems are exactly alike.  The next step is to create a menu of interventions tailored to meet local needs — and support them with reliable funding.

September 8, 2017 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Encouraging new Brennan Center data on 2017 crime trends ... let the spinning begin

The Brennan Center for Justice has this notable new report titled simply "Crime in 2017: A Preliminary Analysis," and its first section starts this way: 

Based on new data collected from police departments in the 30 largest cities, this report finds that all measures of crime — overall crime, violent crime, and murder — are projected to decline in 2017. Indicators show that 2017 will have the second lowest rates of crime and violent crime since 1990.

These findings directly undercut any claim that the nation is experiencing a crime wave. In 2015 and 2016, overall crime rates remained stable, while murder and violent crime rose slightly. Now, in 2017, crime and murder are projected to decline again. This report’s main findings are explained below, and detailed in Figure 1, and in Tables 1 and 2:

• The overall crime rate in 2017 is projected to decrease slightly, by 1.8 percent. If this estimate holds, as it has in past analyses, 2017 will have the second lowest crime rate since 1990.

• The violent crime rate is projected to decrease slightly, by 0.6 percent, essentially remaining stable. This result is driven primarily by stabilization in Chicago and declines in Washington, D.C., two large cities that experienced increases in violence in recent years. The violent crime rate for this year is projected to be the second lowest since 1990 — about one percent above 2014’s violent crime rate.

• The 2017 murder rate is projected to be 2.5 percent lower than last year.  This year’s decline is driven primarily by decreases in Detroit (down 25.6 percent), Houston (down 20.5 percent), and New York (down 19.1 percent).  Chicago’s murder rate is also projected to fall, by 2.4 percent.  The 2017 murder rate is expected to be on par with that of 2009, well at the bottom of the historic post-1990 decline, yet still higher than the lowest recorded rate in 2013.  Notably, more than half the murder increase from 2014 to 2017 (55.6 percent) is attributable to two cities — Chicago and Baltimore.  This year’s decrease could indicate that the increases in 2015 and 2016 were short-term fluctuations in a longer-term downward trend.

• While crime is down this year, some cities are projected to experience localized increases. For example, Charlotte’s murder rate doubled in the first six months of 2017 relative to last year.

Before even starting to spin this new data, it bears emphasis that there could be developments in the last four months of 2017 that alter this prediction that crime will decline for the year.  But assuming these encouraging new crime numbers hold upon further developments and analysis, it will be interesting to watch different advocates making different claims about what a return to declining crimes means. I would certainly expect Prez Trump and AG Sessions to assert that their reversal of a variety of Obama era policies and practices is already having a positive impact, while advocates for progressive "smart on crime" reforms will surely claim that this data shows we can and should be able to continue to reduce prison populations and reduce crime at the same time.

Critically, whatever gets spun, these data are a cause for celebration and everyone should be rooting for the numbers to continue to trend in a positive direction in the months and years ahead.

September 6, 2017 in National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

A deep look at "tough on crime" responses to the opioid epidemic

German Lopez has this lengthy important new Vox piece under the headlined "The new war on drugs: Not every state is responding to the opioid epidemic with just public health policies." I recommend the piece in full, and this excerpt highlights its themes:

There has been much discussion of criminal justice reform in the past several years. And there has been a lot of talk about treating the opioid epidemic — the deadliest overdose crisis in US history — as a public health, not criminal justice, issue, unlike past drug crises. The cliché about the crisis, said by both Democrats and Republicans, is that “we can’t arrest our way out of the problem.”

Yet the rhetoric doesn’t tell the whole story. In my own investigation, I found at least 13 states, including Kentucky, that passed laws in recent years that stiffened penalties for opioids painkillers, heroin, or fentanyl — largely in response to the epidemic.  In sharp contrast to all the talk about criminal justice reform and public health, these laws risk sending even low-level, nonviolent drug offenders — many of whom are addicted to drugs and need help for that addiction — to prison for years or decades.

The facts show that the conventional narrative about the opioid epidemic and criminal justice reform is incomplete. Most states — including many of the states I found that passed new “tough on crime” laws in response to the opioid epidemic — have passed criminal justice reform at some level in the past several years.  And the rhetoric about drugs has undeniably changed a lot in recent years across both political parties.

But as the opioid epidemic continues to kill tens of thousands of people in the US each year, many state lawmakers have gone back to the old criminal justice playbook to fight the crisis — even as the empirical evidence remains clear that tougher prison sentences are not an effective means to stopping the epidemic.  The new laws are just one example.  Several states have also dusted off old laws to lock up more opioid users and dealers.

And that shows that for all the talk about reform, America’s instincts for the “tough on crime” approach are still very much here.

September 5, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

US Sentencing Commission releases big new analysis of Prez Obama's 2014 Clemency Initiative

I am excited to see that the US Sentencing Commission has this morning released this big new report titled simply "An Analysis of the Implementation of the 2014 Clemency Initiative." I hope to find the time in the coming days to dig into many of the report's particulars; for now, I can just reprint the text of this USSC overview page about the report and add a few comments:

Report Summary

This report analyzes the sentence commutations granted under the 2014 Clemency Initiative.  It provides data concerning the offenders who received a sentence commutation under the initiative and the offenses for which they were incarcerated.  It examines the extent of the sentence reductions resulting from the commutations and the conditions placed on commutations.  It also provides an analysis of the extent to which these offenders appear to have met the announced criteria for the initiative.  Finally, it provides an analysis of the number of offenders incarcerated at the time the initiative was announced who appear to have met the eligibility criteria for the initiative and the number of those offenders who received a sentence commutation.

Key Findings

The key findings of this report are:

  • President Obama made 1,928 grants of clemency during his presidency.  Of them, 1,716 were commutations of sentence, more commutations than any other President has granted.

  • Of the 1,928 grants of clemency that President Obama made, 1,696 were sentence commutations under the 2014 Clemency Initiative.

  • The commutations in sentence granted through the Clemency Initiative resulted in an average sentence reduction of 39.0 percent, or approximately 140 months.

  • Of the 1,696 offenders who received a commuted sentence under the Clemency Initiative, 86 (5.1%) met all the announced Clemency Initiative factors for consideration.

  • On April 24, 2014, there were 1,025 drug trafficking offenders incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons who appeared to meet all the announced Clemency Initiative factors.  Of them, 54 (5.3%) received clemency from President Obama.

  • By January 19, 2017, there were 2,687 drug trafficking offenders who had been incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons when the Clemency Initiative was announced and who appeared to meet all the announced Clemency Initiative factors. Of them, 92 (3.4%) received clemency from President Obama.

Back in 2014 when the clemency initiative was announced and certain criteria emphasized (basics here), I had an inkling that the criteria would end up both over-inclusive and under-inclusive. I figured Prez Obama would ultimately not want to grant clemency to everyone who met the criteria announced and also would want to grant clemency to some who did not meet all the criteria. That said, I am still surprised that only 5% of those prisoners who got clemency meet all the criteria and that only about 5% of those prisoners who met all the criteria get clemency. (Based on a quick scan of the USSC report, it seems the vast majority of those who got clemency had some criminal history, which put most of the recipients outside the stated DOJ criteria.)

These additional insights and data points from the USSC report highlight what really seemed to move a clemency applicant toward the front of the line:

A review of the offenders granted clemency under the Initiative shows that at some point the Clemency Initiative was limited to drug trafficking offenders, as all the offenders who received commutations under the Initiative had committed a drug trafficking offense.  This focus was not identified when the Initiative was announced and no formal public announcement was made later that the Initiative had been limited to drug trafficking offenders....

Almost all Clemency Initiative offenders (95.3%) had been convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.  Most (89.7%) were charged in such a way that the mandatory minimum penalty that applied in the case was ten years or longer.  Indeed, most of the Clemency Initiative offenders (88.2%) received a sentence of 20 years or longer, or life imprisonment.

In the end, then, it appears the 2014 Clemency Initiative turned out to be almost exclusively about identifying and reducing some sentences of some federal drug offenders subject to long mandatory prison terms. Somewhat disappointingly, this USSC report does not appear to speak to whether and how offenders who received clemency were distinct from the general federal prison population in case processing terms. My own rough research suggests that a great disproportion of those who got clemency were subject to extreme mandatory minimums because they opted to put the government to its burden of proof at trial rather than accept a plea deal. Also, if the goal ultimately was to remedy the worst applications of mandatory minimum sentences, it is not surprising that a lot of clemency recipients had some criminal history that would serve to both enhance the applicable mandatory minimum AND make an otherwise lower-level offender not eligible for statutory safety-valve relief from the mandatory term.

September 5, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Third Circuit panel rejects various challenges to severe stash-house sting sentence

A helpful reader made sure that I did not miss yesterday's dynamic discussion by a Third Circuit panel of a set of defense challenges to yet another severe sentence resulting from a stash-house sting.  The start of the majority opinion in US v. Washington, No. 16-2795 (3d Cir. Aug. 28, 2017) (available here), highlights why these cases are so notable:

Defendant-appellant Askia Washington was ensnared by a “stash house reverse sting” operation — one which hit many of the by-now-familiar beats.  Acting on what appeared to be insider information from a drug courier, Washington and his three co-conspirators planned to rob a Philadelphia property where they thought 10 kilograms of cocaine were being stored for distribution.  But as they discovered on the day of the robbery, the “stash house” was a trap set by law enforcement.  Their “courier” was an undercover federal agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (“ATF”), which had developed the scenario from the ground up.  The cocaine did not exist.

Under federal law on conspiracy and attempt, the government could, and did, prosecute the crew as if fantasy had been reality.  Washington, the sole member to take his chances at trial, was convicted by a jury of two Hobbs Act robbery charges and two drug charges (18 U.S.C. § 1951(a) and 21 U.S.C. § 846), although he was acquitted on a gun charge.

Developed by the ATF in the 1980s to combat a rise in professional robbery crews targeting stash houses, reverse sting operations have grown increasingly controversial over the years, even as they have grown safer and more refined.  For one, they empower law enforcement to craft offenses out of whole cloth, often corresponding to statutory offense thresholds.  Here, the entirely fictitious 10 kilograms of cocaine triggered a very real 20-year mandatory minimum for Washington, contributing to a total sentence of 264 months in prison — far more than even the ringleader of the conspiracy received.  For another, and as Washington claimed on multiple occasions before the District Court — and now again on appeal — people of color are allegedly swept up in the stings in disproportionate numbers.

These elements of controversy are bound up in the three claims Washington now raises on appeal.  Two are constitutional claims: Washington challenges his conviction and sentence by arguing that the use of the statutory mandatory minimum term violated his rights to due process, and he also alleges that the attorney who represented him at trial rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance.  While stash-house reverse stings can raise constitutional concerns, the use of a mandatory minimum sentence on these particular facts did not deprive Washington of his right to due process.  And while this is the rare case where a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel was properly raised on direct appeal instead of through a collateral attack, Washington has not shown prejudice sufficient to call into doubt the integrity of his trial.  We thus conclude that both constitutional claims are without merit.

A lengthy and nuanced discussion by the majority follows, and largely concludes that the stash-house sting in this case was, in essence, "good enough for government work."  Judge McKee penned a lengthy partial dissent focused on sentencing issues that has a conclusion including these paragraphs:

This case is the latest illustration of why federal courts across the country continue to find the government’s reliance on phony stash-house sting operations disturbing.  As I have explained, these cases raise serious issues of fairness while destroying the fundamental relationship between culpability and punishment that is so important to sentencing.  The conduct being sanctioned is the direct result of the government’s initiative rather than the defendant’s.

I reiterate that it is exceedingly difficult to conclude that Congress ever considered that mandatory minimum sentences would apply here.  Nevertheless, it just may be that the ultimate systematic resolution of this very troublesome approach to sentencing will have to await clarification by Congress, the Sentencing Commission,or the U.S. Supreme Court.  Meanwhile, it is worth echoing my colleagues’ caution: The Government’s success today should not be interpreted as a clue that “all such prosecutions will share the same fate” in the future.

August 29, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 17, 2017

US Sentencing Commission finalizes policy priorities and publishes notable holdover amendments

As reported in this press release, the US Sentencing Commission "today approved its final policy priorities for the upcoming amendment year ending May 1, 2018, which includes an examination of the overall structure of the guidelines and a continuation of its work on synthetic drugs [and] voted to publish several holdover proposals from the previous amendment cycle."  Here is more:

During the upcoming amendment year, the Commission will continue to explore approaches to simplify and strengthen the guidelines. “On this thirtieth year of the federal sentencing guidelines system, the Commission welcomes the opportunity to work with the Congress, the Courts, the Department of Justice, and other stakeholders to find ways to promote certainty and proportionality in sentencing while reducing the complexity of the guidelines,” stated Circuit Judge William H. Pryor, Jr., acting chair of the Commission.

The Commission will also continue its two-year study of synthetic drugs. In April, the Commission held a public hearing to receive testimony on the prevalence and effect of synthetic drugs. The Commission has since commenced a study of specific categories of synthetic drugs, including fentanyl. The Commission will research their chemical structure, pharmacological effects, potential for addiction, legislative and scheduling history, and other relevant issues. The study is intended to provide a meaningful distinction between categories of synthetic drugs so that closely related substances are more easily determined in the guidelines....

Stemming from the Commission’s research on youthful offenders as well as recommendations made by the Tribal Issues Advisory Group (TIAG) in its May 2016 report, the Commission will also continue to study how juvenile sentences are considered in the calculation of the defendant’s criminal history score.

Other priorities include continued work on mandatory minimum penalties. Following the release of the 2017 Mandatory Minimum Overview in July, which built on the Commission’s 2011 report, the Commission will release additional reports highlighting the impact of mandatory minimum penalties for certain offense categories. The Commission will also continue to work with Congress to adopt a uniform definition of “crime of violence” included in recommendations set forth in the 2016 Report to the Congress on Career Offender Sentencing Enhancements.

The Commission also published today several proposed guideline amendments from the previous amendment cycle and as an extension of its current policy priority work. “Today’s proposed amendments are a continuation of our work during the previous amendment year. These holdover proposals were not voted on last year due to the lack of a quorum during the deliberation process. Publishing today gives this reconstituted Commission an opportunity to carefully review these proposals and consider them as early as possible in the current amendment cycle,” stated Judge Pryor.

Among the proposed amendments published today are changes that would increase the number of federal offenders eligible for alternatives to incarceration. Informed by the Commission’s multi-year study on recidivism, one of the proposed amendments would add a downward adjustment to the guidelines for first offenders.

August 17, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)