Friday, October 24, 2014

Split Minnesota Supreme Court rules lenient sentence in rape case was abuse of discretion

As reported in this local article, headlined "Minnesota Supreme Court criticizes probation sentence in rape case," the top appellate court in Minnesota recently took the unusual step of overruled a trial judge's sentencing decision as an abuse of discretion. Here are the details:

In a rare and harshly worded ruling, the Minnesota Supreme Court said Wednesday that a lower court judge erred in sentencing a particularly violent rapist to probation rather than the recommended 12 years in prison.

Justice David Lillehaug opened his 21-page opinion by saying that district courts have a great deal of discretion in sentencing. And the state high court rarely holds that it has been abused, he said. “But rarely is not never,” he continued. “This is such a rare case.”

The state Supreme Court vacated the sentence of 30 years’ supervised probation given to Jose Arriaga Soto Jr. Polk County District Judge Jeffrey Remick now must conduct additional fact-finding on whether the recommended 12-year sentence should be imposed or if a departure from the guidelines is justified.

Soto was 37 when he beat and raped a woman for two hours after drinking all night in an East Grand Forks apartment in 2012. Soto pleaded guilty to first-degree criminal sexual conduct. A co-defendant who was involved in the rape to a lesser degree than Soto received 12 years in prison, the opinion noted in its many criticisms of the ruling.

A presentencing report said Soto had minimized his actions without taking responsibility and blamed the victim. At his sentencing, he apologized to her. The opinion notes, in a tempered outrage, the horrors of the assault for the victim: “Soto committed a forcible and violent assault against an intoxicated and thus particularly vulnerable person. The assault lasted approximately 2 hours and the victim was repeatedly subjected to multiple penetrations by two men. Soto slapped the victim’s face, choked her, and caused several injuries.”

The opinion noted the Legislature and the Sentencing Guidelines Commission have determined a sentence of 12 years in prison is “presumed to be appropriate” for someone with Soto’s criminal history who commits such a rape. The victim’s vulnerability, the multiple forms of penetration and other particular cruelty that may be involved suggests that an upward departure on the case could have been appropriate, the opinion says. The opinion also noted that Soto’s co-defendant, Ismael Hernandez, was “arguably less culpable than Soto — he left the room shortly after the sexual assault began,” but he went to prison for the presumptive sentence of 12 years....

Three of the seven justices dissented from Lillehaug’s opinion. Alan Page wrote that the district court relied on factors generally recognized by the higher court as potentially relevant considerations in determining whether probation was appropriate for Soto. “While another [district] court or the members of our court might have arrived at a different conclusion, that alone does not make this situation the ‘rare case’ warranting our intervention,” wrote Page, who was joined in his dissent by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea and G. Barry Anderson....

Even though probation wasn’t recommended in Soto’s pre-sentence report by a probation officer or an evaluator from a sex offender treatment program, Remick placed him on supervised probation for 30 years. The judge emphasized Soto’s age, lack of serious criminal record and family support. He also said the crime was primarily caused by alcohol and that Soto’s attitude in court was largely respectful and that “this particular type of event seems largely out of character.”

Lillehaug’s opinion challenged all the factors Remick listed for Soto’s amenability to probation, finding that he drew false or inappropriate conclusions in considering them. He said the judge should have argued that Soto was “particularly” amendable, the legal standard used to justify the departure of staying a presumptive sentence.

The full majority and dissenting opinion in Minnesota v. Soto, No. A13-0997 (Minn. Oct. 22, 2014), can be accessed at this link.

October 24, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Does new DOJ appointee want to decriminalize all drug possession ... and would that be so bad?

The questions posed by the title of this post are prompted by this recent commentary authored by Cully Stimson and titled "The New Civil Rights Division Head Wants to Decriminalize Possession of All Drugs." Here are excerpts:

So who supports decriminalizing cocaine, heroin, LSD, methamphetamine, ecstasy and all dangerous drugs, including marijuana? No, it’s not your teenage nephew. It’s President Obama’s new acting head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Vanita Gupta. In 2012, Gupta wrote that “states should decriminalize simple possession of all drugs, particularly marijuana, and for small amounts of other drugs.” (Emphasis mine).

Last week, President Obama appointed Vanita Gupta to the position of acting head. According to the Washington Post, the administration plans to nominate her in the next few months to become the permanent assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. Her views on sentencing reform – a bi-partisan effort in recent years – have earned her qualified kudos from some conservatives. But her radical views on drug policy – including her opinion that states should decriminalize possession of all drugs (cocaine, heroin, LSD, ecstasy, marijuana etc.) should damper that support of those conservatives, and raise serious concerns on Capitol Hill....

To begin, she believes that the misnamed war on drugs “is an atrocity and that it must be stopped.” She has written that the war on drugs has been a “war on communities of color” and that the “racial disparities are staggering.” As the reliably-liberal Huffington Post proclaimed, she would be one of the most liberal nominees in the Obama administration.

Throughout her career, 39-year old Gupta has focused mainly on two things related to the criminal justice system: first, what she terms draconian “mass incarceration,” which has resulted in a “bloated prison population, and second, the war on drugs and what she believes are its perceived failures.

She is particularly open about her support for marijuana legalization, arguing in a recent CNN.com op-ed that the “solution is clear: …states could follow Colorado and Washington by taxing and regulating marijuana and investing saved enforcement dollars in education, substance abuse treatment, and prevention and other health care.”...

But Gupta does not stop with marijuana. In calling for all drugs to be decriminalized – essentially legalizing all dangerous drugs – Gupta displays a gross lack of understanding of the intrinsic dangers of these drugs when consumed in any quantity.

Heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and methanqualone are Schedule I drugs, which are defined as “the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.” Cocaine, methamphetamine, Demerol and other drugs are Schedule II drugs, defined as “drugs with a high potential for abuse…with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence.”

Sound public policy must be based on facts, not radical unsafe, and dangerous theories.

I concur 100% with the statement at the end of this commentary that "sound public policy must be based on facts," and that it why I am more than a bit troubled that this commentary quite false asserts that Gupta's seemingly reasonable suggestion that persons should not be deemed criminals for possessing a small amount of a narcotic is tantamount to advocacy for "legalizing all dangerous drugs."

The term "decriminalize" in this context means to treat in a less-serious regulatory manner like we treat traffic offenses. Nobody would assert that we have "essentially legalized" all speeding and other traffic offenses because we only respond to the offense with fines and limited criminal sanctions. Likewise, advocacy for decriminalizing simple possession of small amounts of drugs is not the equivalent of endorsing a fully legalized marketplace for drugs comparable to what we are seeing in a few states now with marijuana.

That all said, I think Vanita Gupta's suggestion that states decriminalize simple possession of drugs as a way to de-escalate the drug war, as well as Cully Stimson's obvious concerns with such a suggestion, are very legitimate issues for engaged political and public policy debate.  (For the record, I would generally support most state drug-decriminalization efforts, though I also would generally advocate that criminal sanctions kick in based on possession of larger dealer-size quantities of certain drugs.)   I am pleased to see this commentary, even in a effort to assail a new DOJ nominee, start to bring overdue attention to these important modern drug-war issues.  But I hope in the future Mr. Stimson and others will make and understand the important distinction between advocating for decriminalization and advocating for full legalization.

October 22, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Bladerunner Oscar Pistorius sentenced to five years in prison for killing girlfriend

Download (1)As reported in this lengthy CNN piece, "Oscar Pistorius' fall from grace culminated Tuesday with a five-year sentence in the shooting death of his girlfriend." Here is more:

The sentence was imposed for the charge of culpable homicide, which in South Africa means a person was killed unintentionally, but unlawfully.  Under South African law, he will have to serve at least one-sixth of his sentence -- 10 months -- before he can ask to be placed under correctional supervision, usually house arrest, instead....

During his trial, the double-amputee sprinter often sobbed at the mention of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp's name.  He insisted that he mistook her for an intruder when he shot her through a toilet door on Valentine's Day 2013.  But there was very little visible reaction from Pistorius as the sentence was read out in the Pretoria court.

Speaking to CNN's Robyn Curnow in the last few weeks before his sentencing, Pistorius told her that he would respect and accept the decision of the court and that he was not afraid of imprisonment.  He said he hoped to contribute while in prison by teaching people how to read or start a gym or running club. "Oscar will embrace this opportunity to pay back to society," his uncle, Arnold Pistorius, told reporters.  "As an uncle, I hope Oscar will start his own healing process as he walks down the path of restoration.  As a family, we are ready to support and guide Oscar as he serves his sentence."

The Steenkamp family's lawyer, Dup De Bruyn, said in a statement: "The family is satisfied. They are glad that it is over and are satisfied that justice has been done."

The prosecution had asked for a minimum prison sentence of 10 years for Pistorius.  After the ruling Tuesday, South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority said it had not yet decided whether to appeal Judge Thokozile Masipa's verdict that he is not guilty of murder. Pistorius' defense had called for a sentence of house arrest and community service. There was no immediate reaction from the defense team on the sentencing.  Both sides now have a 14-day period in which they can choose to lodge any appeal, according to CNN legal analyst Kelly Phelps....

Giving her reasoning Tuesday, Masipa emphasized that the decision on sentencing would be "mine and mine alone." She pointed out that sentencing is not an exact science but relies on an assessment of elements, including the nature and seriousness of the crime, the personal circumstances of the accused and the interests of society.

She said she would also take into account the factors in sentencing of retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation. In any case, she said, "sentencing is about achieving the right balance."

In her final remarks, Masipa dismissed evidence given by probation officer Annette Vergeer that prison would not be able to accommodate Pistorius' disability, saying her testimony was based on outdated information and sketchy. She said Pistorius would not present the prison system with an "insurmountable challenge."

The judge added that she felt that Pistorius' vulnerability had been overemphasized in the evidence given and that his excellent coping strategies -- shown in his ability to compete with able-bodied athletes -- had been overlooked. He would be able to continue treatment for physical problems and mental health issues while in prison, she said.

In terms of the seriousness of the offense, Masipa said Pistorius had shown gross negligence in shooting into a small toilet cubicle, knowing there was someone inside who could not escape. He also knew how to handle firearms, she said, adding that these were "very aggravating" factors.

On the other hand, mitigating factors include that Pistorius is a first offender and remorseful, Masipa said. She also mentioned his contribution to society in giving his time and money to charities and inspiring others with disabilities to believe they could succeed.

Perhaps seeking to preempt criticism from those who'd like to see either a tougher or more lenient sentence, Masipa pointed out that the purpose of the court is to serve the public interest, not make itself popular. She also indicated that her sentence wasn't affected by Pistorius' fame. "It would be a sad day for this country if the impression was to be created that there was one law for the poor and disadvantaged and another for the rich and famous," she said.

The judge also highlighted the loss suffered by Steenkamp's family, which has had a negative effect on her father's health. Steenkamp was young, vivacious and full of life at the time of her death, she said. "The loss of life cannot be reversed. Nothing I say or do today can reverse what happened," she said.

Previous related post:

October 21, 2014 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Reviewing Alabama's (somewhat successful) use of sentencing guidelines to reduce prison growth

ImagesAs highlighted in this lengthy local article, headlined "Sentencing reform has slowed, not stopped, inmate growth," sentencing and sentencing reform in Alabama has been a dynamic process that includes sentencing guidelines intended to steer more offenders away from prison. Here are some details:

The state's sentencing structure has a huge impact on the prison population, which is at about 190 percent the capacity it was designed for. A 24-member panel — the Prison Reform Task Force — is working with the Council of State Governments Justice Center to analyze the system and find ways to reduce overcrowding, reduce recidivism and improve public safety.

Andy Barbee, research manager of the CSG's justice center, said Alabama's switch in October 2013 to presumptive guidelines — which judges are required to use unless there's a mitigating or aggravating factor to be considered — has accelerated a downward trend in the number of sentences to prison and the lengths of those sentences. Those guidelines, however, only apply to drug and theft cases.

That trend started in 2006, when voluntary guidelines were made available for judges to use. Judges still had the option to choose existing sentencing laws, but had to acknowledge for the record that voluntary guidelines were considered, Barbee said. The state took those guidelines a step forward when they approved legislation in 2012 that established the presumptive guidelines....

The new guidelines use a point system that weighs factors such as past criminal history and facts of the crime to impose a sentence, said Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission. The commission is the research arm of the criminal justice system. It's responsible for implementing changes when laws change and making annual recommendations for improvements to the governor, Legislature, chief justice and attorney general.

Wright said the purpose of creating the presumptive guidelines was to provide uniform sentencing practices across Alabama counties, and to make sure the system is fair, effective and encourages community supervision for nonviolent offenders.

But because there are scarce drug rehabilitation and mental health resources and those vary county by county, more structured and uniform assessments of those in the criminal justice system need to be in place to make sure services are effective. "At some point, the state will have to make a bigger investment in community services and supervision programming," Wright said. "Matching offenders with the right services lowers the likelihood that they'll commit more crimes."

The presumptive guidelines are binding unless a judge decides to downgrade the sentence based on facts, or unless an aggravating factor that might warrant a harsher sentence is proved, Wright said. Barbee said the switch to presumptive guidelines was a bold move in the right direction that took political courage, but the next step is to make sure the structure in place continues to evolve. He said similar changes need to happen with parole.

Although the number of arrests, sentences to prison and lengths of sentence are decreasing, the prison population is still on the rise. However, the presumptive guidelines are projected to slow the tremendous growth that the prison population would have seen otherwise, Wright said. "The presumptive guidelines are not going to drastically lower the prison population," Wright said. "It would be a modest reduction at best, but more than likely, it would result in a stabilization. The point is, if you didn't have them, the prison population would just grow, grow, grow."

Much of the current prison population was punished under a set of laws that provided more serious punishments to a larger class of offenses, Barbee said. "Simply waiting on the guidelines to have an effect won't get the system where it wants to be until many years out," Barbee said. "Therefore it's critical, if the state wants to have a near-term impact on the crisis level of overcrowding, it looks beyond sentencing."

Barbee said there are some caveats with the state's sentencing guidelines. Burglary is considered a violent crime, regardless of whether anyone else was involved during the burglary.... He also said Alabama has one of the lowest felony theft thresholds in the country at $500. The threshold was recently raised from $250, he said, and most states are at about $1,000 or $2,000.

The fact that the state's laws don't consider weight or amount when it comes to drug crimes also makes it more likely that punishment might not match the crime. He said any amount of drug possession other than marijuana — whether it's one pill or a pound of cocaine — is a felony.

October 19, 2014 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Author John Grisham says "we've gone nuts with this incarceration" of child porn downloaders

One of my (many) wonderful students alerted me to this notable UK press piece reporting on an interview with famous law author John Grisham who had some interesting (and likely-to-be-controversial) comments about tough sentencing for those who download child porn.  The article is headlined "John Grisham: men who watch child porn are not all paedophiles," and here are excerpts:

America is wrongly jailing far too many people for viewing child pornography, the best-selling legal novelist John Grisham has told The Telegraph in a wide-ranging attack on the US judicial system and the country's sky-high prison rates. Mr Grisham, 59, argued America's judges had "gone crazy" over the past 30 years, locking up far too many people, from white collar criminals like the businesswoman Martha Stewart, to black teenagers on minor drugs charges and — he added — those who had viewed child porn online.

"We have prisons now filled with guys my age. Sixty-year-old white men in prison who've never harmed anybody, would never touch a child," he said in an exclusive interview to promote his latest novel Gray Mountain which is published next week.  "But they got online one night and started surfing around, probably had too much to drink or whatever, and pushed the wrong buttons, went too far and got into child porn."

The author of legal thrillers such as The Firm and A Time to Kill who has sold more than 275m books during his 25-year career, cited the case of a "good buddy from law school" who was caught up in a Canadian child porn sting operation a decade ago as an example of excessive sentencing.  "His drinking was out of control, and he went to a website. It was labelled 'sixteen year old wannabee hookers or something like that'. And it said '16-year-old girls'.  So he went there. Downloaded some stuff — it was 16 year old girls who looked 30.

"He shouldn't ’a done it.  It was stupid, but it wasn't 10-year-old boys.  He didn't touch anything.  And God, a week later there was a knock on the door: ‘FBI!’ and it was sting set up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to catch people — sex offenders — and he went to prison for three years."

"There's so many of them now.  There's so many 'sex offenders' — that's what they're called  — that they put them in the same prison.  Like they're a bunch of perverts, or something; thousands of ’em.  We've gone nuts with this incarceration," he added in his loft-office in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Asked about the argument that viewing child pornography fuelled the industry of abuse needed to create the pictures, Mr Grisham said that current sentencing policies failed to draw a distinction between real-world abusers and those who downloaded content, accidentally or otherwise.  "I have no sympathy for real paedophiles,” he said, "God, please lock those people up.  But so many of these guys do not deserve harsh prison sentences, and that's what they're getting," adding sentencing disparities between blacks and whites was likely to be the subject of his next book.

There are currently some 2.2m people in jail in the US — or more than 750 per 100,000 population — which makes the US by far the heaviest user of prison sentences in the world. By contrast, Britain imprisons just 154 per 100,000 population.  However Mr Grisham’s remarks are likely to anger child-rights campaigners that over the past decade have successfully lobbied the US Congress to demand tougher sentences for those who access child pornography online.

Since 2004 average sentences for those who possess — but do not produce — child pornography have nearly doubled in the US, from 54 months in 2004 to 95 months in 2010, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. However the issue of sex-offender sentencing has sparked some debate in the US legal community after it emerged that in some cases those who viewed child porn online were at risk of receiving harsher sentences than those who committed physical acts against children.

A provocative article in the libertarian magazine Reason headlined "Looking v Touching" argued last February that something was "seriously wrong with a justice system in which people who look at images of child rape can be punished more severely than people who rape children".  And in January this year the US Supreme Court was unable to resolve a debate over whether a man who viewed images of a child rape should be as liable to pay the same financial compensation to the victim as the original perpetrator of the crime.

UPDATE: As I expected, John Grisham's child porn sentencing comments has stirred controversy and he has already issued a formal apology.  This CNN story provides the basics of the early aftermath:

Those comments and the nature in which Grisham discussed the very serious issue of child pornography incited a flood of hurt, disappointed and angry reactions from fans.

"The day that you came out in an interview and said that watchers of child porn get too stiff of a penalty for it (you said 10 years was too much) makes you someone that I cannot support nor no longer want to read," a reader named Kendra Benefield Lausman shared on Grisham's Facebook page; another posted that she's taken her entire Grisham library to her "burn barrel" with the intent to set the books on fire.

"How do you think child porn is made?" a poster named John Kelly asked on Grisham's page. "Someone is still getting hurt you imbecile. I'm sad to say that I will never purchase, nor consume, one of your books ever again. I am disgusted."

After the uproar began, Grisham issued an apology.

"Anyone who harms a child for profit or pleasure, or who in any way participates in child pornography -- online or otherwise -- should be punished to the fullest extent of the law," the author said in a statement. "My comments made two days ago during an interview with the British newspaper The Telegraph were in no way intended to show sympathy for those convicted of sex crimes, especially the sexual molestation of children. I can think of nothing more despicable. I regret having made these comments, and apologize to all."

That may not be enough for some of his former followers. "You clearly said in the interview that people (like your drunk friend) who look at child porn don't deserve severe punishment," Facebook user Raylene Jolly Wheeler posted in response to Grisham. "Not sure how you can backtrack that statement."

October 16, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Does the Constitution limit the age at which a juve killer can be tried as an adult?

The question in the title of this post is promopted by this AP story emerging from Pittsburgh sent my way by a helpful reader.  The story is headlined "Boy, 10, Charged As Adult In Death Of 90-Year-Old Woman," and here are the details:

A 10-year-old boy has been charged as an adult in the beating death of a 90-year-old woman over the weekend in northeastern Pennsylvania. Prosecutors in Wayne County said the boy was visiting his grandfather, the caretaker of Helen Novak, in Tyler Hill on Saturday, when county emergency responders got a call reporting her death.

District Attorney Janine Edwards said in a statement that the boy’s mother brought him in to the state police barracks at Honesdale the same afternoon and reported that her son had told her that he had gone into the woman’s room and she yelled at him. The boy told his mother that “he got mad, lost his temper and grabbed a cane and put it around Novak’s throat,” police said. Advised of his rights and interviewed by a trooper, he said he “pulled Novak down on the bed and held the cane on her throat and then punched her numerous times,” authorities said.

State police said the boy told them that he went to his grandfather and told him that the woman was “bleeding from her mouth” but denied he had harmed her, but later told him that he had punched the woman and put a cane around her neck. Police said an autopsy done Monday at Wayne Memorial Hospital in Honesdale indicated blunt force trauma to the victim’s neck, and the death was ruled a homicide....

The boy was charged as an adult with criminal homicide and aggravated assault, with the prosecutor’s office noting that the crime of homicide “is specifically excluded from the juvenile act” and therefore “a juvenile who commits the crime of homicide is charged as an adult.”  The boy was held without bail pending an Oct. 22 preliminary hearing.

I am pretty sure that, prior to the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment ruling in Miller, this 10-year-old killer would have be facing a mandatory LWOP sentence under Pennsylvania law. Now, I believe, state law provides only a mandatory minimum of 20 or 25 years for this kind of killer. Especially for those still troubled by the Miller ruling and eager to have some juve killers get LWOP sentences (such as folks talking here over at Crime & Consequences), I wonder if they would assert that even a kid still in elementary school could and should never even have a chance to live outside a cage for a crime like this.

October 14, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 09, 2014

New survey shows significant and growing support for "eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders"

As reported via this FAMM news release, which is headlined "New Poll Finds 77% of Americans Support Eliminating Mandatory Minimums for Non-Violent Offenses," there is new polling data suggesting that large and growing percentages of Americans favor mandatory minimum sentencing reform. Here are the basic details:

A new Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey finds that 77 percent of Americans support eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses.  That number is up from 71 percent in December 2013, the last time Reason-Rupe polled on the question.  You can find the full survey results here (PDF); mandatory minimums are question 17. 

“Almost three decades have passed since the United States instituted harsh mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses.  During that time, countless lives have been ruined and countless families destroyed.  The American people have noticed, and they want no more of it,” said Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

The poll question Reason-Rupe posed reads as follows: “Would you favor or oppose eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders so that judges have the ability to make sentencing decisions on a case-by-case basis?”

Seventy-seven percent of respondents said they favored eliminating mandatory minimums, while only 17 percent of respondents said they were opposed.  When Reason-Rupe asked the same question in December 2013, 71 percent of respondents were in favor of eliminating mandatory minimums, and 24 percent were opposed.

October 9, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Ninth Circuit panel chastises prosecutors for breaching "fast-track" plea agreement

A Ninth Circuit panel has handed down a lengthy, must-read opinion today in US v. Morales Heredia, No. 12-50331 (9th Cir. Oct. 8, 2014) (available here).  The start of the opinion should make clear to federal practitioners, especially in border districts, why this case is notable:

Every day along the southwest border, previously deported aliens lacking entry documents are arrested, detained, and charged with illegal reentry.  Once convicted, they serve a term of imprisonment, and then are again deported.  The numbers are so great that federal prosecutors in these border states began to resort to an efficient means of securing a conviction: a “fast-track” plea agreement that binds the government and the defendant, but not the district judge.

The government secures the benefit of a streamlined process that minimizes the burden on its prosecutorial resources.  It need not go before a grand jury to secure an indictment; battle motions, including collateral attacks on the underlying deportation; prosecute a jury trial; or oppose an appeal.  The defendant, in turn, waives constitutional and other rights and agrees to a term of incarceration and, often,a term of supervised release ordinarily discouraged by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.  What is the incentive for the defendant to take this deal?  The prosecutor binds his office to recommend a four-level downward departure in the offense level now advised by the Guidelines, and to present a “united front” in favor of a reduced sentence to the district judge.  If the judge does not accept this sentence, the defendant may walk away from his guilty plea, and proceedings will begin anew.

Paul Gabriel Morales Heredia (Morales) was one such defendant.  But in Morales’s case, the orderly and efficient plea-bargaining process did not play out as intended.  The government extended the promise of a reduced prison term with one hand and took it away with the other.  The prosecutor’s recommendation of a six-month prison term rang hollow as he repeatedly and unnecessarily emphasized Morales’s criminal history, adding for good measure his personal opinion that “defendant’s history communicates a consistent disregard for both the criminal and immigration laws of the United States.” Morales’s counsel timely objected and sought specific performance of the plea agreement.  The district judge denied this relief on the irrelevant ground that the prosecutor’s statements did not influence him.  We conclude that Morales is entitled to relief, and we vacate his sentence and remand for further proceedings before a different judge.

October 8, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Monday, October 06, 2014

Reviewing California's debate over lowering sentences through Prop 47

I have noted in a few prior posts some of the details of California's Proposition 47, which seeks to reduce penalties for certain offenders convicted of low-level property and drug crimes.  This new New York Times article, headlined "California Voters to Decide on Sending Fewer Criminals to Prison," discusses the current state of debate over Prop. 47.  Here are excerpts:

Twenty years ago, amid a national panic over crime, California voters adopted the country’s most stringent three-strikes law, sentencing repeat felons to 25 years to life, even if the third offense was a minor theft.  The law epitomized the tough-on-crime policies that produced overflowing prisons and soaring costs.

Now California voters appear poised to scale back the heavy reliance on incarceration they once embraced, with a measure that would transform several lower-level, nonviolent felonies into misdemeanors punishable by brief jail stays, if that, rather than time in a state penitentiary.  The referendum on Nov. 4 is part of a national reappraisal of mass incarceration.

To its advocates — not only liberals and moderates, but also an evangelical conservative businessman who has donated more than $1 million to the campaign, calling it “a moral and ethical issue” — the measure injects a dose of common sense into a justice system gone off the tracks. 

“Law enforcement has been on an incarceration binge for 30 years, and it hasn’t worked,” said George Gascón, the San Francisco district attorney and a former police chief who, bucking most of his counterparts around the state, is the main sponsor along with a former police chief of San Diego. For the large numbers of nonviolent offenders with mental health or substance abuse problems, Mr. Gascón said, “Incarceration doesn’t fix the problem.”

California has already been forced by federal courts to trim its prison population because of inhumane crowding, which it did mainly by sending more offenders to county jails.  Two years ago, in a previous referendum, voters took the worst sting off the three-strikes law, shortening the sentences of those whose third crime was a minor one.

The new initiative would have wider effects, altering penalties for low-level theft and drug-possession crimes that result in felony convictions, and sometimes prison terms, for thousands of nonviolent offenders each year.  Proposition 47, as it is called, would redefine thefts, forgery and other property crimes involving less than $950, and possession for personal use of drugs including heroin and cocaine, as misdemeanors — punishable by at most one year in a county jail, and often by probation and counseling. The changes would apply retroactively, lightening the penalties for thousands already in prison or jails....

The proposals here are modest compared with changes recently taken by other states to curb prison growth.  But Proposition 47 has drawn harsh attack from law enforcement officials, including most district attorneys and the association of police chiefs, which calls it “a dangerous and radical package” that will “endanger Californians.”...

In a poll in September conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, 62 percent of voters said they supported the initiative, and only 25 percent said they opposed it. Proponents like Mr. Gascón and Darrell Steinberg, the Democratic president pro tem of the State Senate, say this shows that the public is far ahead of timid legislators, necessitating the unusual step of a ballot initiative....

But opinions could change, especially if the two sides mount television campaigns in coming weeks. One of the most outspoken opponents, Shelley Zimmerman, the chief of police in San Diego, has already gone on the offensive.  “Virtually all of law enforcement is opposed,” Chief Zimmerman said.  “It’s virtually a get-out-of-jail-free card” for 10,000 felons, many with violent histories.  She and other opponents have zeroed in on two details: Stealing a gun worth less than $950 and possessing date-rape drugs would no longer be automatic felonies....

So far, supporters of the proposal have a large financial advantage, raising more than $4 million as of last week, half of which had been used to get the measure on the ballot, compared to less than $300,000 for the opponents, with most of that donated by a law enforcement officers’ association.  Large donations in support have come from the Open Society Policy Center, a Washington-based group linked to George Soros; the Atlantic Advocacy Fund, based in New York; Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix; and Sean Parker, the former president of Facebook. 

But the largest single donor is B. Wayne Hughes Jr., a conservative Christian businessman and philanthropist based in Malibu. In one of the most tangible signs yet of growing concern among conservatives about the cost and impact of incarceration, Mr. Hughes has donated $1.255 million....

Even if Proposition 47 passes, California will still lag behind many other states, including some that are politically conservative, in reforms that have achieved prison cuts with no increase in crime, said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts.  Just looking at the dollar threshold for theft or forgery felonies, he noted, Mississippi recently raised its cutoff to $1,000, and South Carolina to $2,000. “This reform may be modest,” Mr. Gascón acknowledged. “But California led the way early on in draconian sentencing, and now I’m hoping that these reforms, too, will have an impact on the state and the nation.”

Prior related posts:

October 6, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Up and down the east coast, notable white-collar federal sentencings

My usual review of the week's sentencing news with Google's help turned up a number of noteworthy federal while collar sentencing stories.  These three especially cuaght my eye:

From Delaware, via "Delaware multimillionaire gets prison," we learn: " Former eBay executive Christopher Saridakis of Greenville, Delaware, was sentenced to 15 months in prison for insider trading Wednesday by a U.S. District Court judge. Saridakis, 45, tipped off two family members and two friends in 2011 to the pending sale of GSIC – where he was chief executive officer – to eBay days before the sale was announced. The tip allowed those individuals to realize more than $300,000 profit, according to prosecutors."

From Florida, via "Ponzi schemer Rothstein’s former law partner sentenced to nearly three years," we hear: "The wife and children of Stuart Rosenfeldt said they have forgiven him for spending the dirty money of his former law partner, Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein, on prostitutes and other criminal conduct. They and other supporters crowded into a Miami federal courtroom Thursday to point out Rosenfeldt’s long history of donating free legal work and personal time to charities in South Florida. But their pleas for mercy did not sway U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke, who sentenced Rosenfeldt to almost three years in prison instead of a lesser term sought by his defense attorney. His sentencing came almost five years after the collapse of a $1.2 billion investment scheme that Rothstein ran out of their Fort Lauderdale law firm."

From New Jersey, via "RHONJ's Teresa Guidice gets 15 months; 41 for Joe," we see: "Two stars of the Real Housewives of New Jersey will be trading the drama of reality TV for prison after being sentenced on conspiracy and bankruptcy fraud charges.  After an initial delay, U.S. District Court Esther Salas sentenced Teresa Guidice to 15 months in prison Thursday afternoon.  Earlier in the day, her husband Giuseppe "Joe" Giudice was ordered to serve more than three years in prison on conspiracy and bankruptcy fraud charges. He was also ordered to pay $414,000 in restitution."

October 2, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What should be made of the tough prosecution/punishment trend for animal abuse?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this front-page New York Times article headlined "He Kicked a Stray Cat, and Activists Growled." Here are excerpts:

On one side are the activists.  Once dismissed as cat ladies or fringe do-gooders, they have come to wield real power through funding, organization and a focus on legal remedies for animal abuse.  They have embraced social-media campaigns; offered rewards to potential witnesses to animal abuse; trained prosecutors; and made inroads in pushing law enforcement across the country to arrest, and seek jail time for, animal abusers.

Yet lawyers defending the accused say that punishment can seem disproportionate to the crime when an animal is the victim.  They say that putting people in jail can have serious long-term effects, from starting or strengthening gang affiliations, to taking someone away from school or a job to which they may not return.   “The nature of the crime should not automatically mandate a jail sentence if a person is found guilty,” said Tina Luongo, acting attorney in charge of the Legal Aid Society’s criminal practice.

At the moment, the activists seem to be winning the fight.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation announced this month that it would track animal abuse as a separate crime, rather than lumping it in the “other” category.

In New York City, the Police Department took over responsibility for animal abuse complaints in January, and created an Animal Cruelty Investigation Squad. Arrests for animal abuse increased about 250 percent through September, compared with the same period last year....

Houston’s district attorney said this month that she would seek jail time in animal cruelty cases, and Massachusetts passed a bill increasing maximum prison time for animal abuse cases to seven years from five.  In Virginia, after a push from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a man was sentenced in February to a year in jail for starving a pit bull.  And in Texas this year, a man received five years after offering to guide a wayward pet donkey home, then dragging the donkey behind his truck.  The donkey, which was found in a ditch, survived....

Not long ago, animal cruelty was “considered a side issue, relegated to something a few overpassionate people cared about, basically,” said Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal of the Upper West Side, who has backed several bills strengthening animal cruelty laws. “Now, it’s a mainstream concern.”

And it is one that animal groups are trying to make even more central....  The groups say they have captured law enforcement’s attention in part by emphasizing that animal cruelty can be a “red flag” for future crimes, particularly domestic violence. Prosecutions nationwide are becoming much more frequent, said Sherry Ramsey, the director of animal cruelty prosecutions for the Humane Society of the United States, “and a lot of it’s based on what we know now about the link between animal cruelty and human violence.”

Yet defense groups say animal abuse cases ... should be handled individually, and are not necessarily predictive of worse behavior.  “We don’t punish individuals for alleged future misconduct they might at some point in the future engage, but have not,” Theodore Simon, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said in an email. “To do so would be to punish a person for a ‘crime’ that has not occurred and was not committed.”  Defense advocates also say more needs to be done if society wants to tamp down animal abuse.

September 30, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 25, 2014

"Does Immigration Enforcement Reduce Crime? Evidence from 'Secure Communities'"

The title of this post is the title of this new empirical paper by Thomas Miles and Adam Cox now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Does immigration enforcement actually reduce crime? Surprisingly, little evidence exists either way — despite the fact that deporting noncitizens who commit crimes has been a central feature of American immigration law since the early twentieth century. We capitalize on a natural policy experiment to address the question and, in the process, provide the first empirical analysis of the most important deportation initiative to be rolled out in decades. The policy initiative we study is “Secure Communities,” a program designed to enable the federal government to check the immigration status of every person arrested for a crime by local police. Before this program, the government checked the immigration status of only a small fraction of arrestees. Since its launch, the program has led to over a quarter of a million detentions.

We exploit the slow rollout of the program across more than 3,000 U.S. counties to obtain differences-in-differences estimates of the impact of Secure Communities on local crime rates. We also use rich data on the number of immigrants detained under the program in each county and month — data obtained from the federal government through extensive FOIA requests — to estimate the elasticity of crime with respect to incapacitated immigrants. Our results show that Secure Communities led to no meaningful reductions in the FBI index crime rate. Nor has it reduced rates of violent crime — homicide, rape, robbery, or aggravated assault. This evidence shows that the program has not served its central objective of making communities safer.

September 25, 2014 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Is California's Prop. 47 a "common-sense" or a "radical" reform to the state's criminal laws?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new FoxNews piece headlined "California voters weigh 'radical' changes to justice system as prisons fill up." Here are excerpts:

Voters this fall, however, could approve big -- and some say "dangerous" -- changes to the state’s sentencing system, aimed in part at easing the overcrowding.  On the state ballot is a proposal that would dramatically change how the state treats certain “nonserious, nonviolent” drug and property crimes, by downgrading them from felonies to misdemeanors.

The measure, known as Prop 47, also would allow those currently serving time for such offenses to apply for a reduced sentence, as long as they have no prior convictions for more serious crimes like murder, attempted murder or sexual offenses. 

Businessman B. Wayne Hughes Jr., who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to push the ballot measure, told FoxNews.com the changes would affect Californians who are “over-incarcerated and over-unpunished.” 

“I saw Prop 47 as common-sense reform,” Hughes said. “I don’t see it as a radical reform.”

However, the measure is being slammed as dangerous by members of California’s law enforcement, including San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman.   Zimmerman told FoxNews.com “virtually the entire law enforcement community opposes Prop 47.”

“It will require the release of thousands of dangerous inmates,” she said. 

The proposition would reduce penalties for an array of crimes that can be prosecuted as either felonies or misdemeanors in California. This includes everything from drug possession to check fraud to petty theft to forgery.  Prop 47 would, generally, treat all these as misdemeanors, in turn reducing average jail sentences.  According to a state estimate, there are approximately 40,000 people convicted each year in California who would be affected by the measure.

“[Prop 47] allows the criminal justice system to focus in on more serious crimes,” Hughes said.

According to an analysis by the California Budget Project, state and local governments would save hundreds of millions of dollars every year.  The measure dictates the savings be split among three different areas, with 65 percent going to mental health and drug treatment programs, 25 percent going to K-12 school programs and 10 percent going to victim services.  The measure’s supporters say it also would help reduce California’s prison-overcrowding problem, an issue that has dogged the state for years.

The analysis by the California Budget Project found that the California prison population would “likely" decline if Prop 47 were implemented.  “If Proposition 47 reduced the prison population by just 2,300 individuals – through re-sentencing and/or reduced new admissions – the state could meet the court-ordered population threshold via the measure alone,” the analysis said.

However, Zimmerman argued that the proposition would only shift the burden from the state prisons to local law enforcement and communities.   “[Prop 47 is] not a sustainable or responsible way to reduce California’s prison population,” she said.

The California Police Chiefs Association also has come out hard against the proposition.  “Proposition 47 is a dangerous and radical package of ill-conceived policies wrapped in a poorly drafted initiative which will endanger Californians,” the association said....

Former Republican congressional candidate Weston Wamp agreed, saying Prop 47 "might not be perfect, but it’s a breath of fresh air to talk about an issue where there can be some agreement."  Wamp said if passed, he believes Prop 47 could have a positive effect on the nationwide prison reform movement.   "I think it’s realistic if you give people who are not violent criminals, if you give them an opportunity not to just stay behind bars but to make their lives better, you may see over a longer period of time is lower rates in recidivism and a better chance at taking care of the problems and paying the bills," he said. 

For now, it seems like the proposition’s supporters are connecting with voters. An August poll by the Field Research Corporation found that 57 percent of Californians were in favor of the measure, 24 percent were opposed and 19 percent were undecided. 

Prior related post:

September 24, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Absent evidence of threats to humans, is incarceration for five years for animal abuse needed (or helpful)?

Justice_4_rose_tshirt-rf92764868c3241a48727a11177e14794_804gy_512Like all good people, I really like puppies and really dislike animal abuse.  Still, after being drawn in to this Florida sentencing story by the headline "Man Rapes Pit Bull Puppy, Sentenced To Five Years In Jail For Sexually Abusing Dog," I kept wondering what else the defendant must have done other than abuse his dog in order to be sentence to half a decade behinds bars.  But the most complete story I could find about this "puppy rape" case, here from the Daytona Beach News-Journal, heightens my concern that Florida taxpayers are now going to have to spend a lot of money incarcerating a disturbed old man who presents no obvious threat to humans and clearly needs treatment to deal with his affinity for bestiality. Here are the basics:

A man whose sexual battery of a pit bull puppy did not rise to the level of state prison time, nonetheless received five years behind bars Friday afternoon after Circuit Judge Leah Case compared the crime to “systematic” and “chronic” child abuse.

When Case announced her decision to imprison James Bull of Daytona Beach, a crowd of mostly female animal advocates cheered and cried.  Many of the advocates wore T-shirts bearing the pit bull puppy’s picture and the words “Justice For Rose.”  The dog’s name was Coco, but the New York City rescue organization now fostering the milk-chocolate-colored canine renamed her Rose.

The case is the first time in Volusia or Flagler counties that a person has been convicted on the charge of sexual activity with an animal, a first-degree misdemeanor, State Attorney spokesman Spencer Hathaway said.  Bull was also convicted of two counts of felony cruelty to animals and cruelty to animals.  According to an article in the Mayport Florida Mirror in January, a St. Augustine man was convicted of bestiality with his dog and was sentenced to eight years in prison under the same state statute that was applied to Bull on Friday, Sept. 19, 2014....

Prosecutor Nathaniel Sebastian told Case that Bull did not score enough points criminally to be sentenced to state prison.  He said perhaps the defendant could get additional jail time, probation and psycho-sexual counseling.  Bull’s attorney Peter Kenny didn’t present much of an argument in his client’s favor, but did ask Case to spare Bull from prison because of his age and because he has a “bad back.”

While Case acknowledged that indeed Bull didn’t score high enough for prison, she also repeated the jarring testimony given a few minutes earlier by the state’s four witnesses regarding the dog’s daily suffering.  “Although he (Bull) doesn’t score, it’s more about the intentional infliction of pain on an animal over and over again,” Case said.  “It’s like child abuse. It often happens in secret behind closed doors.”

Prosecutors called three witnesses to the stand — their fourth witness, Halifax Humane Society veterinarian Tom Frieberg, testified via telephone — who provided graphic testimony about the animal’s living conditions and Bull’s abuse.  Bull’s neighbor Dean Ray Gill testified that he constantly heard the dog yelping and “screaming.” Gill said that one day in March he was “fed up” and went to the back apartment to see what was happening to the animal.  Gill said the door to Bull’s apartment was slightly ajar and he could hear the radio or a stereo blaring inside.  Nonetheless, he could still hear the canine yelping above the music. Gill said he saw Bull sexually abusing the animal.  Bull threw the dog aside and closed the front door, the neighbor testified.

Daytona Beach animal control officer Eva Burke said that when she arrived at Bull’s residence on March 18, the dog was chained to a porch and could not move because the chain was too short. Burke also said the animal’s rib cage was showing.  Both Sebastian and Assistant State Attorney John Reid showed their witnesses photographs of the dog when police arrived on scene.  Hathaway, the assistant state attorney who initially had the case, said the pictures were horrifying.  Kenney did not call any witnesses on behalf of Bull.

At the risk of being labelled "soft on puppy rapists" or not loving animals, I cannot help but wonder and worry about the quality of representation this defendant received and about the need for such a lengthy term of incarceration if there is was indeed no evidence this defendant ever hurt a human or had plans to abuse humans. This defendant is plainly disturbed and his mistreatment of animals should be punished, but will a five-year jail term help this defendant get needed treatment or help safeguard the community upon his eventual release? Especially because there is considerable evidence suggesting certain types of offenders become MORE likely to recidivate as a result of a term of incarceration, I fear that this kind of "Justice for Rose" will actually entail greater expenses and an eventual greater threat to public safety for the people of Florida.

September 24, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Noting the dynamics and debate over risk-assessments at sentencing

NA-CC851_SENTEN_D_20140923153009This new Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Judges Turn to Risk-Evaluation Tools in Sentencing Decisions: Many Are Adopting More Systematic Approach to Assessing Likelihood of Reoffense," discusses the always interesting issue of using risk-assessment measures at sentencing.  Here are excerpts:

Judges have always considered the risk of reoffending in meting out sentences, and they generally follow guidelines that dictate a range of punishment for a given offense.  [More recently], however, [there is] a broad effort to bring a more scientific approach to decisions made by judges, parole officers and corrections officials working in a system that often relies on gut instinct.  Risk-evaluation tools have emerged as a centerpiece of efforts to reduce the U.S. inmate population, which jumped from around 200,000 in the early 1970s to over 2 million today.

Many parole boards now weigh risk scores when considering early release, and prison officials use them to determine the level of security offenders need during their stay.  But the adoption of such tools has sparked a debate over which factors are acceptable. Attributes such as age or sex, which employers are generally forbidden from including in hiring decisions, are considered by criminal-justice experts to be strong predictors of whether an offender is likely to commit a crime in the future.

The measures vary widely but generally are based on an offender's criminal history and, in addition to age and sex, may include marital status, employment and education, according to Sonja Starr, a law professor at the University of Michigan.

Pennsylvania, one of the latest states to turn to actuarial tools in sentencing, is building a test that weighs the nature of offense, criminal history, age, sex and county of residence. The last factor is the most controversial as it could be considered a proxy for socioeconomic status.  Missouri takes into account current offense and criminal history, age, whether the offender has a history of substance abuse, education level and employment.

Judges aren't bound by the evaluations, but there is evidence they are taking them into account. Virginia officials attribute a more than 25% drop in the number of nonviolent offenders sent to prison annually to the assessments, used to score felons convicted of fraud, larceny and drug crimes since 2003.  In the past decade, the percentage of offenders serving prison terms for violent crime has risen to 74% from 61%, said Chief Judge Bradley B. Cavedo of Richmond Circuit Court. "It doesn't really control the outcome, but it is useful information," he said of the measures.

The efforts have drawn skepticism from Attorney General Eric Holder, who told a group of defense lawyers in Philadelphia last month that basing sentencing on factors such as a defendant's education level "may exacerbate unwarranted and unjust disparities."

There is no research yet on whether the use of risk evaluations in sentencing has aggravated, for example, the gap between sentences for black and white men for similar crimes.  Ms. Starr said the disparities created by risk measures are evident. "When it comes down to it, these assessments stand for the proposition that judges should sentence people longer because they were in foster care as children or had too many bouts of unemployment," she said.

Christopher Slobogin, a Vanderbilt University law professor, said the alternative was potentially worse.  "At least these risk-assessment instruments don't explicitly focus on race or poverty, unlike what might occur in a sentencing regime where judges are making risk assessments based on seat-of-the-pants evaluations," he said.

Recent related posts:

September 23, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

High-profile commentator Dinesh D’Souza gets below-guideline probation sentence for violating federal campaign finance laws

As reported in this New York Times piece, headlined "D’Souza Is Spared Prison Time for Campaign Finance Violations," another notable white-collar defendant got a below-guideline federal sentence today thanks to judges now having broader post-Booker sentencing discretion. Here are the details:

The conservative author and documentary filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza was spared prison time on Tuesday after pleading guilty earlier this year to violating federal campaign finance laws.

Judge Richard M. Berman of Federal District Court in Manhattan handed down a probationary sentence — including eight months in a so-called community confinement center — and a $30,000 fine, bringing to a close a high-profile legal battle that started with Mr. D’Souza’s indictment in January for illegally using straw donors to contribute to a Republican Senate candidate in New York in 2012.

Mr. D’Souza, who has accused President Obama of carrying out the “anticolonial” agenda of his father, initially argued that he had been singled out for prosecution because of his politics. In April, his lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, filed court papers contending that Mr. D’Souza’s “consistently caustic and highly publicized criticism” of Mr. Obama had made him a government target.

A month later, however, on the morning he was scheduled to go on trial, Mr. D’Souza pleaded guilty. “I deeply regret my conduct,” he told the court. Even with his fate hanging in the balance, Mr. D’Souza plowed ahead with his thriving career as a right-wing provocateur. Over the summer, while awaiting his sentencing, he published the book “America: Imagine a World Without Her,” which reached No. 1 on The New York Times’s nonfiction hardcover best-seller list, and a companion documentary film that has made $14.4 million at the box office.

The government charged Mr. D’Souza, 53, with illegally arranging to have two people — an employee and a woman with whom he was romantically involved — donate $10,000 each to the campaign of an old friend from Dartmouth College, Wendy E. Long, with the understanding that he would reimburse them in cash for their contributions. Ms. Long was challenging Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a Democrat.

According to prosecutors, Mr. D’Souza lied to Ms. Long about the donations, reassuring her that “they both had sufficient funds to make the contributions.” Ms. Long pressed Mr. D’Souza on the issue after the election, and he acknowledged that he had reimbursed the two people, the government said, but told Ms. Long not to worry because she had not known about it.

When Mr. D’Souza entered his guilty plea, Judge Berman said he could face up to two years in prison. The federal sentencing guidelines call for 10 to 16 months, but the final decision is up to the judge’s discretion. “Judges are all over the map on these reimbursement cases,” said Robert Kelner, a campaign-finance lawyer at Covington & Burling.

Mr. D’Souza’s lawyers asked for leniency, arguing in a court filing that their client had “unequivocally accepted responsibility” for his crime. “We are seeking a sentence that balances the crime he has regrettably committed with the extraordinary good Mr. D’Souza has accomplished as a scholar, as a community member and as a family member,” they wrote, requesting that he be sentenced to probation and community service at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater San Diego.

The government rebutted Mr. D’Souza’s claims, highlighting both the seriousness of his offense and what it called “the defendant’s post-plea failure to accept responsibility for his criminal conduct.” According to the government, Mr. D’Souza assumed a different posture with respect to his case when he was not before the court. It cited a television interview he gave two days after his plea in which he “repeatedly asserted that this case was about whether he was selectively prosecuted.”

This story reminds me why I am so sad Bill Otis no longer comments on this blog; I am so eager to hear from him directly whether he thinks this case is yet another example of, in his words, allowing "naïve and ideologically driven judges" to make sentencing determinations and therefore further justifies embracing mandatory sentencing schemes that would always require judges to impose prison terms on these sorts of non-violent offenders because these sorts of offenses do great harm even if they do not involve violence.

Based on my limited understanding of the crime and criminal here, I feel fairly confident asserting that a prison term for Mr. D’Souza would have achieved little more than spending extra federal taxpayer dollars without any real public safety return on that investment. But Bill and I rarely see eye-to-eye on these matters, and thus I am eager for a distinct perspective in this notable white-collar case.

September 23, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Monday, September 22, 2014

Inititative details and debates over California's Proposition 47 to reduce severity of various crimes

One of the most intriguing criminal justice initiatives not dealing with marijuana in the 2014 election season is Proposition 47 in California.  This nonpartisan analysis from the Legislative Analyst's Office provides this simplified summary of the initiative (as well as a more detailed explanation of Prop 47's particulars):

This measure reduces penalties for certain offenders convicted of nonserious and nonviolent property and drug crimes.  The measure also allows certain offenders who have been previously convicted of such crimes to apply for reduced sentences.  In addition, the measure requires any state savings that result from the measure be spent to support truancy (unexcused absences) prevention, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and victim services.

This local recent article, headlined "Arguments Heating Up in Penalty-Reducing Prop 47," provides the essence of the current state of debate over this notable initiative:

Some say under Proposition 47 criminals will get a slap on the wrist, but others argue it's a second chance. The crime-fighting arguments for and against Prop 47 are heating up as we inch closer to the November election.

Prop 47 looks to drop non-violent, non-sexual and non-serious felony crimes into misdemeanors. Supporters say it will ease jail and prison overcrowding by giving some a second chance. But opponents say it's a dangerous way to increase the speed of the revolving jail door.

About two dozen religious activists began a huge push Thursday at St. Rest Baptist Church is Southwest Fresno to support Prop 47, calling it the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act. Catholic Bishop Armando Ochoa was among the speakers who believe Prop 47 would benefit the public. "Incarceration does a miserable job of educating people and treating mental illness, but that has become the norm for California," he said.

Under Prop 47 there is a promise of savings to the state by reducing prison and jail population. The promise includes transferring that savings, around a billion dollars over several years, to K-12 education, mental health and rehab programs.

"It promises to lower crime by making it legal," said Mike Reynolds, author of California's three-strikes law. "That's basically what it's saying." Reynolds penned three strikes after his daughter, Kimber Reynolds, was killed in the Tower District in 1992. "This is going to encourage more young people to come into a life of crime," Reynolds said. "It's going to release dangerous criminals back out on the streets, including three strikers."...

So far several law enforcement groups, like the California Police Chiefs Association, are highly opposed to Prop 47's reduced penalties....

The crimes that would be reduced to misdemeanors include drug possession, forgery and shoplifting, among a host of other crimes.

September 22, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sixth Circuit reverses Ponzi scheme sentence because loss calculation failed to credit monies paid out

This morning a Sixth Circuit panel has handed down a notable ruling about loss calculations in the federal sentencing of a Ponzi schemer.  Here is how the panel opinion in US v. Snelling, No. 12-4288 (6th Cir. Sept. 22, 2014) (available here) starts and concludes:

Defendant-Appellant Jasen Snelling appeals a 131-month prison sentence imposed pursuant to a plea agreement.  In the agreement, Snelling admitted to charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, obstruction of justice, and tax evasion for his part in an investment scheme that defrauded investors of nearly $9 million.  Snelling challenges the sentence based on an allegedly faulty Guidelines-range calculation that employed a loss figure that did not take into account the sums paid back to his Ponzi scheme’s investors in the course of the fraud.

For the reasons below, we vacate the sentence of the district court and remand the case for resentencing.....

Admittedly, there is intuitive appeal to the government’s argument that Snelling should not be allowed to benefit from the payments he made “not to mitigate the losses suffered . . . but to create the means to convince new victim-investors to pay him even more money.”  We need not reflect, however, on whether it is unseemly for Snelling to benefit from the money he paid out to investors in an effort to perpetuate his Ponzi scheme. Undoubtedly, it is.  The only question we must consider is whether the district court correctly applied the Guidelines and whether it used a correct Guidelines range.

An accurately calculated Guidelines range is necessary for a procedurally reasonable sentence — any error in calculating the Guidelines range cannot survive review.  See Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 49 (2007); see also United States v. Bolds, 511 F.3d 568, 579 (6th Cir. 2007) (“[W]e must ensure that the district court correctly calculated the applicable Guidelines range which are the starting point and initial benchmark of its sentencing analysis.”) (internal alterations and quotation marks omitted).  As appealing as the government’s argument may be, it does not comport with the text of the Guidelines. Accordingly, the district court was in error when it declined to reduce the loss figure by the value of the payments made by Snelling to his investor victims in perpetuating his Ponzi scheme.

September 22, 2014 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Newt Gingrich helps explain "What California can learn from the red states on crime and punishment"

Newt Gingrich and B. Wayne Hughes Jr. are the co-authors of this notable recent Los Angeles Times op-ed headlined " "What California can learn from the red states on crime and punishment." Among other points, the piece makes the case for a proposition on the ballot in California (Prop 47) that would reduce the severity of a number of California crimes. Here are excerpts:

Imagine you have the power to decide the fate of someone addicted to heroin who is convicted of petty shoplifting. How much taxpayer money would you spend to put that person in prison — and for how long? Is incarceration the right form of punishment to change this offender's behavior?

Those are questions states across the nation are increasingly asking as the costly and ineffective realities of incarceration-only policies have set in. Obviously, we need prisons for people who are dangerous, and there should be harsh punishments for those convicted of violent crimes. But California has been overusing incarceration. Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but we have been filling them with many folks we are just mad at.

Reducing wasteful corrections spending and practices is long overdue in California. The state imprisons five times as many people as it did 50 years ago (when crime rates were similar). And as Californians know, the state's prison system ballooned over the last few decades and became so crowded that federal judges have mandated significant reductions.

Contributing to the growth in the number of prisoners and in prison spending has been a dramatic expansion in the number of felonies. In addition, mandatory minimum sentences have been applied to an increasing number of crimes. These policies have combined to drive up the prison population, as more prisoners serve longer sentences. On top of that, California has an alarmingly high recidivism rate: Six out of 10 people exiting California prisons return within three years.

It makes no sense to send nonserious, nonviolent offenders to a place filled with hardened criminals and a poor record of rehabilitation — and still expect them to come out better than they went in. Studies show that placing low-risk offenders in prison makes them more dangerous when they are released.

Over-incarceration makes no fiscal sense. California spends $62,396 per prisoner each year, and $10 billion overall, on its corrections system. That is larger than the entire state budget of 12 other states. This expenditure might be worth it if we were safer because of it. But with so many offenders returning to prison, we clearly aren't getting as much public safety — or rehabilitation — as we should for this large expenditure.

Meanwhile, California spends only $9,200 per K-12 student, and the average salary for a new teacher is $41,926. And as California built 22 prisons in 30 years, it built only one public university.

California is not alone in feeling the financial (and public safety) consequences of over-incarceration. Several states — politically red states, we would point out — have shown how reducing prison populations can also reduce cost and crime. Most notably, Texas in 2007 stopped prison expansion plans and instead used those funds for probation and treatment. It has reduced its prison population, closed three facilities and saved billions of dollars, putting a large part of the savings into drug treatment and mental health services. Better yet, Texas' violent crime rates are the lowest since 1977.

Another red state, South Carolina, made similar reforms for nonviolent offenses. The drop in the number of prisoners allowed South Carolina to close one prison and also lower its recidivism rate. Other states (Ohio, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Mississippi) have similarly shifted their approach to nonviolent convictions.

Now voters in California will have a chance to do the same, using costly prison beds for dangerous and hardened criminals. It is time to stop wasting taxpayer dollars on locking up low-level offenders. Proposition 47 on the November ballot will do this by changing six nonviolent, petty offenses from felony punishments (which now can carry prison time) to misdemeanor punishments and local accountability.

The measure is projected to save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars per year, and it will help the state emphasize punishments such as community supervision and treatment that are more likely to work instead of prison time....

If so many red states can see the importance of refocusing their criminal justice systems, California can do the same. It's not often the voters can change the course of a criminal justice system. Californians should take advantage of the opportunity and vote yes on Proposition 47.

September 21, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, September 19, 2014

"The Most Senior Wall Street Official: Evaluating the State of Financial Crisis Prosecutions"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article on SSRN authored by Todd Haugh. Here is the abstract:

This September marks six years since the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the height of the financial crisis.  Recently, a growing debate has emerged over the Justice Department’s failure to criminally prosecute Wall Street executives for their role in creating the crisis.  One side of that debate contends the government has failed to bring to justice individual wrongdoers — primarily the heads of banks operating in the mortgage-backed securities market — instead preferencing enforcement decisions that target corporations, resulting in punishments that are “little more than window-dressing.”  The other side argues that cases against individuals are precluded by the realities of the federal criminal justice system, and that “corporate headhunting” will only inhibit meaningful regulatory reform.

It is difficult, however, to evaluate these competing claims without proper context.  This Article explores the recent conviction and sentencing of Wall Street executive Kareem Serageldin as a means of providing that context.  Although Serageldin has been trumpeted as the “the most senior Wall Street official” to be sentenced for conduct committed during the financial crisis, and his conviction was framed as a victory in punishing those accountable for the financial collapse, a critical look at his case reveals he committed only a mundane white collar crime marginally related to the crisis.  This disconnect creates a unique lens through which to understand and evaluate the current state of — and debate surrounding — financial crisis prosecutions.  And it ultimately highlights the merits, and shortfalls, of each camp’s arguments.  The Article concludes by offering something largely absent from the current debate: specific proposals for how we might go about prosecuting individuals so as to prevent the next crisis.

September 19, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack