Thursday, December 24, 2015
Is it reasonable to ask Santa Claus to bring a certiorari grant on acquitted conduct sentencing?
The silly question in the title of this post is prompted by the terrific Christmas-week opinions authored by DC Circuit Judges Kavanaugh and Millett in concurrences to the denial of en banc rehearing in US v. Bell, No. 08-3037 (DC Cir. Dec. 22, 2015) (available here). Regular readers know that I have long been troubled by the use of so-called acquitted conduct in the calculations of an applicable guideline range, both opinions in Bell spotlight well some of the reasons why.
Interestingly, Judge Kavanaugh suggests he thinks Congress or the Sentencing Commission may need to act in order now to address problems with acquitted conduct. But Judge Millett's opinion in Bell provides, in the space of eight pages, a thoughtful and thorough accounting of why the Supreme Court should consider anew the constitutional validity of sentences enhanced dramatically on the basis of allegations that a jury considered insufficient for a lawful conviction. I will provide here an exceprt from the start and end of Judge Millett's opinion:
This case is one in an “unbroken string of cases” encroaching on the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury, Jones v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 8, 9 (2014) (Scalia, J., joined by Thomas & Ginsburg, JJ., dissenting from the denial of certiorari). The government indicted Gregory Bell for a “mélange” of crimes, “including conspiracy and crack distribution.” Panel Op. 2. Bell exercised his constitutional right to a trial by jury on those charges, and the jury acquitted Bell of ten of the thirteen charges against him, “including all narcotics and racketeering conspiracy charges.” Panel Op. 3. The jury convicted Bell of only three crack cocaine distribution charges that together added up to just 5 grams.
Because Bell had no significant criminal history and the amount of cocaine was relatively small, Bell’s Sentencing Guidelines range for the offense of conviction would have been 51 to 63 months. At sentencing, however, the district court found that Bell had engaged in the very cocaine conspiracy of which the jury had acquitted him, and sentenced Bell to 192 months in prison — a sentence that was over 300% above the top of the Guidelines range for the crimes of which he was actually convicted.
In a constitutional system that relies upon the jury as the “great bulwark of [our] civil and political liberties,” Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 477 (2000) (quoting 2 J. Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States 540– 541 (4th ed. 1873)), it is hard to describe Bell’s sentence as anything other than a “perverse result,” United States v. Watts, 519 U.S. 148, 164 (1997) (Stevens, J., dissenting). The foundational role of the jury is to stand as a neutral arbiter between the defendant and a government bent on depriving him of his liberty. But when the central justification the government offers for such an extraordinary increase in the length of imprisonment is the very conduct for which the jury acquitted the defendant, that liberty-protecting bulwark becomes little more than a speed bump at sentencing....
While I am deeply concerned about the use of acquitted conduct in this case, I concur in the denial of rehearing en banc. That is because only the Supreme Court can resolve the contradictions in the current state of the law, by either “put[ting] an end to the unbroken string of cases disregarding the Sixth Amendment” or “eliminat[ing] the Sixth Amendment difficulty by acknowledging that all sentences below the statutory maximum are substantively reasonable.” Jones, 135 S. Ct. at 9 (Scalia, J., joined by Thomas and Ginsburg, JJ., dissenting from denial of certiorari). Though I am not certain Bell’s argument is directly foreclosed by Supreme Court precedent, my colleagues on the panel have done their best to navigate existing precedent, recognizing that the Supreme Court has thus far declined to address this issue. Going en banc would only delay affording the Supreme Court another opportunity to take up this important, frequently recurring, and troubling contradiction in sentencing law.
Despite seemingly having a number of sound vehicles for reconsidering Watts in the wake of Apprendi, Blakely, Booker et al., the Supreme Court has persistently dodged this acquitted conduct issue for well over a decade. Thus, we may need some of the holiday magic of Old Saint Nick in order to finally get the Justices to give needed attention to "this important, frequently recurring, and troubling contradiction in sentencing law."
December 24, 2015 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)
Highlighting how Chrismas clemency cheer brings a lump of coal for those left off Prez Obama's list
This Washington Post article, headlined "Obama’s clemency list brings joy to the lucky and anguish to the disappointed," notes the sadness felt by federal prisoners and their families when certain names fail to appear on the latest list of commutations. Here are excerpts from a lengthy piece that gives special attention to the (in)famous case of Weldon Angelos:
The president wants to use his clemency power to undo past injustices, and on Friday, in the largest single-day grant of his presidency, he signed 95 commutations. They brought joy to families across the country.
“God be the Glory,” said Sharanda Jones, a 48-year-old Texas woman who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a cocaine offense. She was a first-time, nonviolent offender. “I am overjoyed.”
But for thousands of other prisoners, who may also meet the president’s criteria, their exclusion was a hard blow. “It was a great day for those who won the lottery and one more disappointment for everyone in the pipeline who should be on the list,” said Amy Povah, a former inmate and the founder of the Can-Do Foundation, a clemency advocacy group.
criminal justice reform advocates of an irrationally severe system. He was sentenced in 2004 to a mandatory 55 years in prison without the possibility of parole after he was arrested for selling marijuana in three separate transactions with a Salt Lake City police informant, while possessing a firearm. Angelos never used or pulled out the gun, but the informant testified that he saw a gun when he made the buys, and that triggered a statute referred to as “gun stacking,” which forced the judge to give him a long sentence.
Angelos’s case has been widely championed, including by Families Against Mandatory Minimums and conservative billionaire Charles Koch. Former U.S. District Court judge Paul G. Cassell, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, has called the sentence he imposed on Angelos “unjust, cruel and even irrational.” Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president of Koch Industries, said the failure to commute Angelos’s sentence Friday was “disappointing and devastating for Weldon and his family.”
“Think of anything in your life that you’ve waited for,” Holden said. “Everything else pales in comparison to this. It is unclear why Angelos failed to get clemency. A Justice Department spokeswoman said that officials do not discuss individual clemency petitions. Another official noted that the department is processing them “as thoroughly and expeditiously as we can.”
Each of the four times that the president has announced his commutations has been difficult for Angelos, but this time cut the deepest. And it’s not because it came around the holidays. It’s because this group of inmates will be released on April 16. “If I had been given clemency this time,” Angelos, a father of three, said in an interview at the Federal Correctional Institution at Mendota, “I would have been out for my oldest son’s graduation from high school in June.”
When he came in from the track, Angelos called his sister, Lisa. She had heard he wasn’t on the list, and she was crying. While talking to her, he looked up and saw Obama on the prison television set making his official announcement at his end-of-year news conference. “I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach,” he said.
Similar scenes were playing out in other federal prisons, said Angelos’s lawyer, Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and a co-founder of New York University’s Clemency Resource Center. He represents nine clients who are seeking clemency. “I dreaded the phone ringing,” Osler said in a blog post he called “Sunday Reflection: The sad call”: “I looked at the screen and it said what I feared it would: ‘Unknown,’ which is how calls from prison always come up. I let it ring once, twice, three times before pressing ‘answer.’ . . . And each time I talked to them about what had happened, how I did not know how they picked the lucky ones. They told me, in heavy voices, what they would miss: a son’s graduation, the last days of a mother in fading health. And each time I hung up and sat in silence.”
White House Counsel W. Neil Eggleston said last week that Obama, who has granted 184 clemencies, has already commuted the sentences of more individuals than the past five presidents combined. “We expect that the president will grant more commutations and pardons to deserving individuals in his final year in office,” Eggleston added.
But clemency advocates say that Obama has put himself in a different position than previous presidents. Instead of granting a moment of mercy to an inmate — much like the odds of being struck by lightning — Obama’s Justice Department set out eight specific clemency criteria, including having served at least 10 years, having no significant criminal history prior to conviction and demonstrating good behavior in prison. And he raised the hopes of thousands who believed they could qualify. “What the president announced was a categorical grant to people who met those eight criteria,” Osler said. “If it’s a categorical grant, we should be seeing consistency.”
I suspect there may well be a cruel irony to the decision not to have (my former pro bono client during his 2255 efforts) Weldon Angelos on the lastest list of commutation: I think Prez Obama and his advisors might reasonably fear that granting clemency to Angelos now could undercut some urgency in Congress to continue pressing forward with statutory sentncing reform. GOP Senator Mike Lee has often mentioned the Angelos case in his advocacy for federal sentencing reform, and the stacking of mandatory minimums that resulted in Angelos' extreme sentence would be fixed in the reform bills that have been slowly moving through Congress.
I suspect Prez Obama is especially eager to see Angelos get relief from a duly enacted law, and I remain hopeful that Angelos will appear on a clemency list before this time next year if Congress in 2016 proves unable to reform the problematic provision that led to Angelos receiving a mandatory 55 years for a few minor marijuana sales. In the meantime, I hope Weldon, his family and all those advocating on his behalf might get a glimmer of comfort from the possibility that Angelos' continued incarceration may actually foster continued congressional reform efforts which would benefit thousands of fellow federal prisoners.
Wednesday, December 23, 2015
Based on SCOTUS Johnson ruling, Seventh Circuit declares statutory sentence enhancement for illegal reentry offenses
A helpful reader made sure I did not miss a notable post-Johnson vagueness ruling by a Seventh Circuit panel in US v. Vivas-Ceja, No. 15-1770 (7th Cir. Dec. 22, 2015) (available here). Here is how the panel opinion gets started:
Raul Vivas-Ceja pleaded guilty to illegally reentering the United States after removal, the maximum sentence for which is raised to 20 years if the defendant has been convicted of an “aggravated felony” prior to removal. See 8 U.S.C. § 1326(b)(2). As relevant here, the definition of “aggravated felony” is supplied by the definition of “crime of violence” in 18 U.S.C. § 16(b), which includes “any … offense that is a felony and that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.”
The district court concluded that Vivas-Ceja’s Wisconsin conviction for fleeing an officer was a crime of violence under § 16(b), raising the maximum sentence to 20 years. The court imposed a sentence of 21 months. Vivas-Ceja appeals, arguing that § 16(b)’s definition of “crime of violence” is unconstitutionally vague in light of Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015).
The Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause prohibits the government from depriving a person of liberty under a statute “so vague that it fails to give ordinary people fair notice … or so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement.” Id. at 2556. In Johnson the Supreme Court held that sentencing a defendant under the so-called “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii), violates this prohibition. Section 16(b) is materially indistinguishable from the ACCA’s residual clause. We hold that it too is unconstitutionally vague according to the reasoning of Johnson. We therefore vacate Vivas-Ceja’s sentence and remand for resentencing.
Friday, December 11, 2015
Prez candidate Donald Trump pledges (seemingly unconstitutional) death penalty mandate for cop killers
As reported in this article from The Hill, "Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump on Thursday vowed to issue an executive order to mandate the death penalty for anyone who kills a police officer." Here is more:
“One of the first things I’d do in terms of executive order, if I win, will be to sign a strong, strong statement that would go out to the country, out to the world, anybody killing a police man, a police woman, a police officer, anybody killing a police officer, the death penalty is going to happen,” he said.
“We can’t let this go,” he added, speaking to a New Hampshire crowd alongside the New England Police Benevolent Association, shortly after the group voted to endorse Trump.
The outspoken businessman referenced the 2014 shooting of two New York City police officers in their squad car, which prompted significant outcry from some conservatives accusing President Obama of fostering resentment against police officers. “I want to let you know, the police and law enforcement in this country, I will never ever let them down,” he said. “The job they do and the job all you in this room do is second to none, and everyone in our country knows that.”
As most informed readers likely know, the Supreme Court back in 1976 first declared that a system of mandatory death sentencing was unconstitutional, and the Justices reaffirmed this "individualization" constitutional requirement in a number of subsequent ruling. But Justice Scalia has long complained about the Supreme Court finding such a limit in the Constitution, and it is certainly possible that a President Trump might be inclined to seek to live up to this campaign pledge by seeking to overturn prior SCOTUS precedent precluding any capital punishment mandates.
Thursday, December 03, 2015
"The government is abusing mandatory minimums: How law enforcement is ruining a generation of Americans"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Salon article authored by Daniel Denvir. Here are excerpts:
The Obama administration has called for the criminal justice system to be reformed and for the population of our enormous prison system to be reduced, encouraging reform efforts in Congress and pledging to speed up a moribund clemency process so that people serving unjustly harsh sentences can be freed. The Department of Justice has taken a lead role, forcing local police departments to clean house and, under former Attorney General Eric Holder, pledging to restrict federal prosecutors’ use of harsh mandatory minimums....
There is growing concern, however, that federal prosecutors in the 94 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices nationwide are implementing Holder’s directives unevenly — or even resisting implementation entirely. David Patton and Jon Sands, co-chairs of the Federal Defender Legislative Committee, wrote in a recent letter to House Judiciary Committee leadership that “there is widespread disregard of DOJ policy among line federal prosecutors about when to trigger those severe enhancements. And the enhancements are regularly used for no other reason than to force people to waive their trial rights.”
851 enhancements double five- and ten-year mandatory minimum drug sentence for offenders with one prior “felony” drug conviction, and impose a life without parole sentence for offenders with two drug priors facing a ten-year sentence. What counts as a so-called felony, however, is remarkably broad [and] it can include state convictions so minor that they did not result in jail time. It can even include state misdemeanors...
Steve Cook, the president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys ... is leading a campaign against sentencing reform legislation in Congress, and he disagrees that prosecutors use 851s to coerce cooperation. “One of the criticisms I hear frequently from commentators is prosecutors want these mandatory minimums and 851s so they can strong arm guilty pleas. Well, that isn’t the case,” Cook said. “851s, those were designed to put recidivists in prison for longer.”
There is evidence, however, to suggest that that is often precisely how they are used. Judge Gleeson detailed one such instance in a 2013 opinion protesting his own sentencing of Lulzim Kupa, and the prosecutorial abuse of mandatory minimums more generally. Based on more than five kilograms of cocaine alone, Kupa faced a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. But Kupa had two prior marijuana trafficking convictions. If prosecutors so decided, they would trigger life without parole upon conviction.
On March 5, 2013, prosecutors offered Kupa a plea deal. The government would withdraw the 10-year mandatory minimum and instead recommend a sentence of between 110-137 months. With good time credits, Kupa could serve seven years and ten months, Gleeson wrote. But Kupa had just one day to think the agreement over, and he didn’t accept it. And so prosecutors twisted the screws tighter, filing the 851 information detailing his two prior marijuana convictions. Unless prosecutors withdrew the notice, he would be automatically sentenced to life without parole upon conviction. “Just like that, a defendant for whom the government, only ten days earlier, was willing to recommend an effective sentence of less than eight years was looking at life in prison without the possibility of parole,” wrote Gleeson.
December 3, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)
Tuesday, December 01, 2015
"Our Voluminous Laws And The Need For ‘Mens Rea’ Reform"
The title of this post is the title of this new posting at Right on Crime. It gets started this way:
As Congress has begun to consider various reforms to the federal criminal justice system in the last several months — sentencing and re-entry policies in particular — another element of federal law that merits consideration is beginning to receive its due, as well: namely, ensuring that criminal statutes or regulations have adequate mens rea, or criminal intent, requirements.
In yesterday’s edition of the Cato Daily Podcast, Caleb Brown interviewed Robert Alt, President of the Buckeye Institute in Ohio, about the current landscape of state and federal criminal law, where Alt succinctly describes the growing problem: “We’ve noticed over the years, both at the Congressional level and the state level, that more and more crimes are being passed that either have no criminal intent requirement at all — where you can be convicted for mere accidents — or they have inadequate mens rea requirements.”
A long-standing tradition among common law jurisdictions has held that criminal actions generally have two elements: the bad action itself (actus reus), and a guilty state of mind (mens rea). In recent decades, legislatures haven’t had much difficulty passing statutes detailing new crimes, or enabling regulatory agencies to concoct administrative rules that also bear criminal penalties. As Alt explains, an American Bar Association task force found in 1998 that the body of federal criminal law was so cumbersome that a single, “conveniently accessible” repository listing them all didn’t exist. Shortly thereafter, they commissioned a study to generate an inventory, in which case over 3,000 federal criminal statutes were detailed.
In 2007, a similar inventory performed by the Heritage Foundation and others found that the number had jumped to roughly 4,500, and this is to say nothing of federal regulatory offenses; estimates have pegged the Federal Register at approximately 300,000 regulations, though no one knows the exact number as those responsible for finding them eventually stop counting.
What hasn’t occurred with regularity as these new laws or rules are being promulgated is inclusion of the second element of crime: establishing culpable intent on the part of the actor. This has the effect of creating new criminals out of people who had no intention or knowledge of running afoul of the law, and can have adverse, long-term consequences.
"Negotiating Accuracy: DNA in the Age of Plea Bargaining"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Alexandra Natapoff and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Hundreds of exonerations have made DNA a kind of poster child for the innocence movement and the demand for more accurate evidence in criminal cases. But most wrongful convictions are not simply the result of evidentiary mistakes. In the marketplace of plea bargaining, convictions are the result of numerous inputs — a defendant’s criminal record, prosecutorial bargaining habits, the size of the trial penalty, whether the defendant is out on bail — that have nothing to do with the accuracy of the evidence. The bargained nature of these convictions means that accurate evidence is just one piece — and not always the most important piece — of the larger negotiation process that establishes guilt.
We might say that the plea process is structurally tolerant of inaccuracy, precisely because it transforms accuracy into a commodity that may be traded and negotiated away in exchange for agreement. This is a recipe for wrongful conviction. The innocence movement, for example, has uncovered numerous cases where innocent defendants pled guilty to homicide and rape in order to avoid the death penalty. The pressures to plead are likewise pervasive in the misdemeanor system, in which thousands of people are rushed through assembly-line processes and routinely plead guilty to minor crimes of which they are demonstrably innocent. Ultimately, we should recognize plea bargaining as a source of wrongful conviction in its own right, and add it to the canonical list of wrongful conviction sources such as mistaken eyewitness testimony, lying informants, and bad forensics.
You be the judge: what federal sentence for beloved elderly preist who embezzled half-million dollars?
This local article, headlined "Dozens ask judge for mercy in sentencing of embezzling Detroit-area Catholic priest," provides the interesting backstory for an interesting federal sentencing scheduled for late today. Here are the basics:
A beloved Catholic priest in Troy was scorned when allegations came forth that he embezzled more than $500,000 from church coffers. Rev. Edward A. Belczak, 70, admitted to diverting $572,775 collected by the church, most of which he kept in a secret private bank account. He also spent $109,570 to purchase a Florida condo in 2005.
Despite the admissions, dozens of people, including many of the parishioners he defrauded, have come forward to ask for a lenient sentence on behalf of the priest who headed St. Thomas More church in Troy from 1984 until 2013. He's scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday.
Belczak pleaded guilty to mail fraud as part of the plea agreement. In exchange, the U.S. Attorneys Office dismissed more serious charges and asked U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Tarnow to sentence Belczak to just over three years in prison.
Attorney John J. Morad, a friend and supporter of the priest, thinks any prison time is too much. "He made a terrible mistake and I know that he is embarrassed, ashamed and humiliated by the fact that he disappointed so many people who have grown to love and respect him for the work he has done among the people," Morad wrote in a letter to the judge. " ... I know he has confessed his sins and I'm certain God has forgiven him. Should we do anything less?"
The defense has asked for home detention, while sentencing guidelines call for a prison term of between 33 and 41 months. The theft from the church is believed to have occurred between 2004 and 2012.
UPDATE: This Detroit Free-Press article about the sentencing of Father Belczak report on the basic outcome via its headline: "Embezzling priest gets 27 months: 'It's .. my destiny'"
Friday, November 27, 2015
Spotlighting why ending the drug war could make a big dent in mass incarceration
This new Washington Post Wonkblog posting by Christopher Ingraham, headlined "Drug offenders make up nearly one-third of prison admissions, new analysis shows," details one reason why I think ending the so-called "war on drugs" would be a very important first step toward tackling the problem of modern mass incarceration. Here is how it starts (with links from the source):
Drug policy activists long have said that decriminalizing parts of the drug trade would relieve some of the burden on overcrowded prisons. But some researchers have pushed back against this notion in recent years. They point out that drug offenders account for only about 1 in 5 state and federal inmates. The Urban Institute showed earlier this year that cutting drug admissions in half would reduce the state prison population by only about 7 percent. Facts like these have led some to conclude that ending the drug war will do little to end the mass incarceration crisis.
But in a new analysis published this week, Brookings Institution fellow Jonathan Rothwell says that arguments about the impact of drug reforms on prison populations have overlooked one key distinction: the difference between the number of people in prison at any given time, and the number of people moving into and out of prison. Rothwell calls this "stock and flow."
He points out that while drug offenses account for only 20 percent of the prison population, they make up nearly one-third — 31 percent — of the total admissions to prison. The reason for the difference? Drug offenders typically serve shorter sentences than, say, murderers or other violent criminals. So simply looking at the number of people in prison at a given point in time understates the true impact of drug laws on incarceration.
"Drug crimes have been the predominant reason for new admissions into state and federal prisons in recent decades," Rothwell writes. "In every year from 1993 to 2009, more people were admitted for drug crimes than violent crimes."
Rothwell agrees that rolling back the drug war won't totally solve the incarceration problem. "But it could help a great deal, by reducing exposure to prison," he writes. Even a brief jail or prison sentence — even just an arrest — can have dire consequences for people at the poorer margins of society. A 30-day jail term for a pot bust, for instance, can mean the loss of a job, the loss of income, and an eventual turn to crime to survive.
Thursday, November 26, 2015
So thankful for federal sentencing reform moving ahead in Congress... but...
this recent article from the New York Times highlights why I will not celebrate the reform movement's accomplishments until a bill is being signed by the President. The article, headlined "Rare White House Accord With Koch Brothers on Sentencing Frays," details what has become more controversial elements of bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts. Here are excerpts:
For more than a year, a rare coalition of liberal groups and libertarianminded conservatives has joined the Obama administration in pushing for the most significant liberalization of America’s criminal justice laws since the beginning of the drug war. That effort has had perhaps no ally more important than Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned by a pair of brothers who are wellknown conservative billionaires.
Now, as Congress works to turn those goals into legislation, that joint effort is facing its most significant test — over a House bill that Koch Industries says would make the criminal justice system fairer, but that the Justice Department says would make it significantly harder to prosecute corporate polluters, producers of tainted food and other whitecollar criminals.
The tension among the unlikely allies emerged over the last week as the House Judiciary Committee, with bipartisan support, approved a package of bills intended to simplify the criminal code and reduce unnecessarily severe sentences. One of those bills — which has been supported by Koch Industries, libertarians and business groups — would make wholesale changes to certain federal criminal laws, requiring prosecutors to prove that suspects “knew, or had reason to believe, the conduct was unlawful,” and did not simply unknowingly violate the law.
Many laws already carry such a requirement — known as “mens rea” — but Congress left it out of many others, and libertarian groups say that has made it too easy to unknowingly violate obscure laws. Some environmentalists argue, however, that the real motive of Charles Koch, the philanthropist and the company chairman, in supporting the legislation is to block federal regulators from pursuing potential criminal actions against his family’s network of industrial and energy companies, a charge the company denies.
If the bill passes, the result will be clear, said Melanie Newman, the Justice Department spokeswoman. “Countless defendants who caused harm would escape criminal liability by arguing that they did not know their conduct was illegal” she said.
The debate over the bill, sponsored by Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, has become particularly complicated for House Democrats, who have been warned that its passage would be essential for obtaining support from Republicans for a larger package of criminal justice bills. Many liberal Democrats see this session of Congress as a rare chance to address what they see as significant unfairness in the criminal justice system. Many of them feel that anything that jeopardizes that opportunity, like trying to block Mr. Sensenbrenner’s bill, is not worth doing. Two liberal members of the Judiciary Committee, Representatives John Conyers Jr. of Michigan and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, were cosponsors of the bill.
Mr. Conyers, in a statement on Tuesday, said he supported the bill, which the Judiciary Committee approved by voice vote last week, because outside parties had raised “a number of concerns about inadequate, and sometimes completely absent, intent requirements for federal criminal offenses.” But he said he was committed to finding a way to address the Justice Department’s concern....
“There are some groups on the left that mistrust the people who have put this proposal forward,” said John G. Malcolm, who served in the Justice Department’s criminal division during the Bush administration. He now works at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center, where he has aggressively pushed for the change in the mens rea provisions. “It is an unfair and unwarranted characterization,” he added.
Koch Industries and conservative groups have some important liberal allies on the matter, including the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Norman L. Reimer, the organization’s executive director, said it was not surprising the Justice Department opposed the legislation. “D.O.J. is always up in arms over anything that looks like they’d have to do their jobs,” he said. If the Justice Department’s job was harder in some cases, he said, that would be a good thing. For example, he cited a case in which prosecutors charged a fisherman with violating federal accounting laws by tossing undersized fish overboard. (Koch Industries made a major donation to the defense lawyers’ group last year.)
November 26, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
Friday, November 20, 2015
"Prison Time Surges for Federal Inmates"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable Issue Brief released this wqeek by the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. Here is how it gets started (with notes omitted):
The average length of time served by federal inmates more than doubled from 1988 to 2012, rising from 17.9 to 37.5 months. Across all six major categories of federal crime — violent, property, drug, public order, weapon, and immigration offenses — imprisonment periods increased significantly. (See Figure 1.) For drug offenders, who make up roughly half of the federal prison population, time served leapt from less than two years to nearly five.
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the elimination of parole, and other policy choices helped drive this growth, which cost taxpayers an estimated $2.7 billion in 2012 alone. Despite these expenditures, research shows that longer prison terms have had little or no effect as a crime prevention strategy — a finding supported by data showing that policymakers have safely reduced sentences for thousands of federal offenders in recent years.
Two factors determine the size of any prison population: how many offenders are admitted to prison and how long they remain. From 1988 to 2012, the number of annual federal prison admissions almost tripled, increasing from 19,232 to 56,952 (after reaching a high of 61,712 in 2011). During the same period, the average time served by released federal offenders more than doubled, rising from 17.9 to 37.5 months. These two upward trends ...caused a spike in the overall federal prison population, which jumped 336 percent, from 49,928 inmates in 1988 to an all-time high of 217,815 in 2012. One study found that the increase in time served by a single category of federal offenders — those convicted of drug-related charges — was the “single greatest contributor to growth in the federal prison population between 1998 and 2010.”
The long-term growth of this population has driven a parallel surge in taxpayer spending. As Pew reported in February 2015, federal prison spending rose 595 percent from 1980 to 2013, from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. Taxpayers spent almost as much on federal prisons in 2013 as they spent in 1980 on the entire U.S. Justice Department — including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and all U.S. attorneys.
Brennan Center produces "preliminary analysis" of crime trends in 2015
The Brennan Center for Justice this week has produced this notable report titled "Crime in 2015: A Preliminary Analysis." Here is its introduction:
Major media outlets have reported that murder has surged in some of the nation’s largest cities. These stories have been based on a patchwork of data, typically from a very small sample of cities. Without geographically complete and historically comparable data, it is difficult to discern whether the increases these articles report are purely local anomalies, or are instead part of a larger national trend.
This report provides a preliminary in-depth look at current national crime rates. It provides data on crime and murder for the 30 largest U.S. cities by population in 2015 and compares that to historical data. This analysis relies on data collected from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local police departments. The authors were able to obtain preliminary 2015 murder statistics from 25 police departments in the nation’s 30 largest cities and broader crime data from 19 of the 30. The data covers the period from January 1 to October 1, 2015. As this report relies on initial data and projects crime data for the reminder of the year, its findings should be treated as preliminary as they may change when final figures are available.
This report’s principal findings, based on the data presented in Table 1, are:
Murder in 2015: The 2015 murder rate is projected to be 11 percent higher than last year in the majority of cities studied. Overall, 11 cities experienced decreases in murder, while 14 experienced increases. Yet, this increase is not as startling as it may first seem. Because the underlying rate of murders is already so low, a relatively small increase in the numbers can result in a large percentage increase. Even with the 2015 increase, murder rates are roughly the same as they were in 2012, and 11 percent higher than they were in 2013. It should also be noted that murder rates vary widely from year to year. One year’s increase does not necessarily portend a coming wave of violent crime.
Crime Overall in 2015: Crime overall in 2015 is expected to be largely unchanged from last year, decreasing 1.5 percent. This report defines overall crime as murder and non-negligent manslaughter, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft. The increase in the murder rate is insufficient to drive up the crime rate, and using murder as a proxy for crime overall is mistaken. It is important to remember just how much crime has fallen in the last 25 years. The crime rate is now half of what it was in 1990, and almost a quarter (22 percent) less than it was at the turn of the century.
Thursday, November 19, 2015
Jared Fogle given (above-guideline and above-prosecutor-recommend) sentence of 188 months in federal prison for sex offenses
As reported in this local article, "Jared Fogle was sentenced to 15 years, eight months in prison Thursday for possession and distribution of child pornography and traveling across state lines for commercial sex with a minor." Here is more about the sentencing:
Judge Tanya Walton Pratt announced the sentence for the former Subway pitchman in federal court in Indianapolis. Fogle was taken into custody of the U.S. Marshal after the four-hour, 42-minute hearing. He was handcuffed behind his back and led out of the courtroom as family members hugged and cried.
Immediately after the hearing, Fogle blew a kiss and waved goodbye to family members in the front row. About a dozen family members and friends attended the hearing. The sentence is more than the 12 1/2 years that prosecutors agreed to seek in a plea deal. Pratt said the advisory sentence range of 135 to 168 months "does not sufficiently account for the defendant's criminal conduct."
Federal prisoners must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. The judge recommended that Fogle be sent to a prison in Littleton, Colo., because of its program for sex offenders. "Federal judges do not sentence based on emotion or public sentiment," Pratt said. She added, "The level of perversion and lawlessness exhibited by Mr. Fogle is extreme."
She described Fogle, 38, as having had a "privileged" upbringing before becoming "obsessed" with sex and minors. Pratt talked about Fogle's journey from being morbidly obese while at Indiana University to losing weight and being discovered by Subway. "What a gift to have such a professional windfall fall in your lap," Pratt said.
Pratt said she believes Fogle is sincere in his remorse and took into account the $1.4 million in restitution he has paid. "This defendant's celebrity cuts both ways," she said. "He will likely get protection when he goes to the Bureau of Prisons."
Prior related posts:
- Subway pitchman and his "Jared Foundation" subject to serious child porn investigation
- What sort of child porn federal plea deal might be in works for Subway pitchman Jared Fogle?
- Even with plea deal, Subway pitchman Jared likely facing at least a decade in federal prison for sex offenses
- Has Jared Fogle gotten a sweetheart plea deal and/or celebrity treatment for sex crimes?
- Federal child porn downloaders complaining to judges about Jared Fogle's (too sweet?) plea deal
- Federal prosecutors seeking plea-deal max sentence of 12.5 years for Jared Fogle
November 19, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (34)
Wednesday, November 18, 2015
"Some Women Charged Under Tennessee’s Hated Fetal Assault Law Say It’s Not So Bad"
The title of this post is the headline of this interesting new Nashville Public Radio piece (found by my great research assistant) that provides interesting perspectives on a controversial Tennessee criminal law responding to modern drug abuse concerns. Here are excerpts:
Tennessee has attracted international attention for making it a crime to give birth to a drug-dependent baby. This means women addicted to pain pills or heroin can be charged with assault to a fetus. After less than two years in effect, the controversial law must be renewed, or it will expire. While the measure has drawn worldwide disdain from women's health and civil liberty advocates, some of the women who’ve been charged say the threat of jail-time was a wake-up call.
“If I didn’t go through what I went through, I’d probably be down that same road right now," says 26-year-old mother Kim Walker of Johnson City. "But now I’m a totally different person. And I’m on the good road, not the bad road.” Last year, Walker went into labor at home.... "One push and he was out," she says. “My husband delivered him. Didn’t know he was drug exposed until we got to the hospital," she says. "When we got to the hospital, they took him straight from my hospital room. I didn’t get to see him, didn’t get to hold him, nothing.”
He spent 28 days in the neonatal intensive care unit, withdrawing from the painkillers Walker was taking illegally. Walker had to take a drug test, which she failed. Then she was charged with assault. But like most women, she chose treatment in order to avoid conviction. Rehab was a rocky road. There’s been a relapse along the way. But in late October, Walker gave birth to another son — Jack — this time, drug-free.
The idea for Tennessee’s fetal assault law didn’t originate from doctors, nurses or social workers. It came from law enforcement and legislators. In fact, the medical community lined up in resistance, saying punishment is no way to treat addiction — especially when young mothers are singled out.
Lisa Tipton falls somewhere in the middle. “I don’t feel the law is perfect," she says. "I don’t feel the law is necessarily the solution...but we were absolutely bombarded.” Tipton runs a non-profit treatment center called Families Free in Johnson City. This part of Northeast Tennessee is the epicenter of the state's — and even the country's — problem with neonatal abstinence syndrome....
Tipton recognizes that Tennessee’s law has a bad rap among women’s health advocates and civil liberty groups. But she says she’s not hearing great alternatives from the naysayers. “I would really invite them to go in our area, into the trailer parks where they may be living with several family members who also use drugs and sometimes abuse them, and their children as well. To go into the jails and talk to the women whose lives have been destroyed by drugs and whose children are being raised by somebody else," Tipton says. "Help come up with some very real-life and real-world solutions that are going to change the lives of these women.”
It isn't clear the fetal assault law is doing what it was supposed to do. In the Tri-Cities, more women have been prosecuted with this misdemeanor than anywhere else in the state. Sullivan County District Attorney Barry Staubus, who pushed for the law in the first place, has charged more than 20 women this year. And yet the mountainous region is still home to the largest number of babies being born needing to detox.
State Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Livingston, sponsored the statute. She says it needs more time and should be renewed. “I’m just going to stand my ground on the fact that I believe wholeheartedly this bill does help and does help these women that are in situations that never would have gotten the help they needed,” she says.
Some women say they were too scared to get prenatal care for fear of going to jail. Even getting that medical help is tricky. Some OBGYNs prefer drug treatment to come first. And only a handful of treatment centers in the state even accept pregnant women and their added complexities.
"I’m not really sure what I feel about the law right now. I kinda of have mixed emotions about it,” says Sabrina Sawyer of Kingsport. Her nine-month-old son was born with drug-dependency and had to spend several days in the NICU. He's happy and healthy now, which brings to light another important point from critics: It's unclear whether there are any long-term health effects from NAS.
Sawyer, who has two other young children, says she didn't know about Tennessee's fetal assault law until a caseworker walked into her hospital room. “I was terrified. I had never been in any kind of trouble," she says. "It sent me through an emotional mess for a while.” Sawyer was charged with assault but chose to get treatment and avoid prosecution. While torn about the effectiveness of the law, she also admits she'd likely still be using if going to jail hadn't been a possibility.
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Terrific original reporting by The Crime Report on challenging extreme policing bordering on entrapment
Regular readers know I am a big fan of all the criminal justice reporting work done at The Crime Report (TCR), and a new two-part series authored by Adam Wisnieski at TCR showcases why. In these two extended pieces, TCR highlights the extraordinary examples of extreme stings and the limited willingness of courts to police the work of police and prosecutors in this arena:
Here is an excerpt from the first of these two important pieces:
A TCR investigation found 126 motions to dismiss a case on the grounds of “outrageous government conduct” filed during an 18-month period between 2014 and August 2015. In those 126 cases, only seven were initially successful. Three of those were overturned on appeal, and an appeal on the fourth is still pending — though it is expected to be denied.
In the rare occurrences where a claim of “outrageous government conduct” is successful, something profound happens: police behavior changes. In one instance this year, the motion’s success directly led to a law enforcement agency changing policy on undercover sting operations involving prostitution. (More on this below.)
Nevertheless, the motion’s lack of success raises troubling questions for the future of American law enforcement. Legal scholars and critical judges say the near-overwhelming failure of courts to rule aggressive police behavior is “outrageous” when such motions arise has created a climate in which such behavior is likely to increase — while eroding the power of the judicial branch to check the government when it overreaches and, by implication, threatening Americans’ constitutionally enshrined right to due process.
More notable criminal justice reform bills put foward by House Judiciary Committee
As detailed in this official press release, there is more notable federal criminal justice reform news via the House Judiciary Committee this week. The press release carries this extended heading "House Judiciary Committee Unveils Bills to Address Federal Over-Criminalization: These bills are part of the Committee’s bipartisan criminal justice reform initiative." And here are some of the essential via the press release (with links from the source):
As part of the House Judiciary Committee’s criminal justice reform initiative, members of the House Judiciary Committee unveiled four bills to rein in the explosion of federal criminal law, commonly referred to as over-criminalization. These bills, along with the Sentencing Reform Act (H.R. 3713), will be marked up by the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, November 18, 2015.
The United States Code currently contains nearly 5,000 federal crimes. Recent studies estimate that approximately 60 new federal crimes are enacted each year, and over the past three decades, Congress has averaged 500 new crimes per decade. In addition to the statutory criminal offenses, there are thousands of federal regulations that, if violated, can also result in criminal liability. Many of these laws and regulations impose criminal penalties on people who have no idea they are violating a law.
The bills unveiled today address the underlying issues that have contributed to over-criminalization:
The Criminal Code Improvement Act of 2015, authored by Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), creates a default mens rea standard that applies when federal law does not provide a state of mind requirement so that only those who actually intend to commit the crime can be criminally liable. It also creates uniform definitions for several terms that are used frequently throughout title 18 of the Criminal Code....
The Regulatory Reporting Act of 2015, sponsored by Congresswoman Mimi Walters (R-Calif.), which requires every federal agency to submit a report to Congress listing each rule of that agency that, if violated, may be punishable by criminal penalties, along with information about the rule....
The Clean Up the Code Act of 2015, authored by Congressman Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), eliminates several statutes in the U.S. Code that subject violators to criminal penalties, such as the unauthorized use of the 4-H emblem or the interstate transportation of dentures....
The Fix the Footnotes Act of 2015, sponsored by Congressman Ken Buck (R-Colo.), fixes the footnotes in the current version of the Criminal Code to address errors made by Congress in drafting the laws.
Monday, November 16, 2015
"Risk, Race, & Recidivism: Predictive Bias and Disparate Impact"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new and timely empirical paper by Jennifer Skeem and Christopher Lowenkamp now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
One way to unwind mass incarceration without compromising public safety is to use risk assessment instruments in sentencing and corrections. These instruments figure prominently in current reforms, but controversy has begun to swirl around their use. The principal concern is that benefits in crime control will be offset by costs in social justice — a disparate and adverse effect on racial minorities and the poor. Based on a sample of 34,794 federal offenders, we empirically examine the relationships among race (Black vs. White), actuarial risk assessment (the Post Conviction Risk Assessment [PCRA]), and re-arrest (for any/violent crime).
First, application of well-established principles of psychological science revealed no real evidence of test bias for the PCRA — the instrument strongly predicts re-arrest for both Black and White offenders and a given score has essentially the same meaning — i.e., same probability of recidivism — across groups. Second, Black offenders obtain modestly higher average scores on the PCRA than White offenders (d = .43; appx. 27% non-overlap in groups’ scores). So some applications of the PCRA could create disparate impact — which is defined by moral rather than empirical criteria. Third, most (69%) of the racial difference in PCRA scores is attributable to criminal history — which strongly predicts recidivism for both groups and is embedded in sentencing guidelines. Finally, criminal history is not a proxy for race — instead, it fully mediates the otherwise weak relationship between race and re-arrest. Data may be more helpful than rhetoric, if the goal is to improve practice at this opportune moment in history.
November 16, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
Sentencing prominent federal defendants: should sex offender Jared Fogle or Sunwest CEO fraudster get longer prison term?
Two notable (and notably different) federal prosecutions are to reach sentencing this week in Indiana and Oregon. Though the crimes and defendants are not similar, the range of sentences being requested by prosecutors and defendants in these two cases are comparable. Via press reports, here are the basic elements of these two federal cases (with links to some underlying documents):
Jared Fogle, who pleaded guilty to federal sex offenses, "Jared Fogle asks for 5-year prison term in court filing before sentencing":
Jared Fogle's attorneys asked for a five-year prison term for the former Subway restaurant pitchman in a court filing before his sentencing Thursday. The filing says Fogle will speak publicly during his hearing before Judge Tanya Walton Pratt in federal court in Indianapolis. "He is painfully aware of the fact that he has impacted the lives of minor victims, hurt those closest to him and, for all practical purposes, destroyed the life he worked to build over the last 18 years," the filing says.
Fogle has agreed to plead guilty to two counts: possession of child pornography and traveling across state lines to engage in sex with a minor. The prosecutor is asking for 12½ years in prison, followed by a lifetime of supervised probation. That was the maximum sentence the U.S. attorney had agreed to seek in a plea bargain struck with Fogle in August. Fogle faced a maximum sentence on the two federal felony charges of 50 years. The judge has discretion to sentence Fogle to more or less than what the prosecution has requested.
The defense filing acknowledges that the advisory sentencing guideline is 135 to 168 months, but said it is "entitled to little weight because it is the result of a flawed and widely criticized set of … provisions."
Jon Michael Harder, who pleaded guilty to federal fraud offenses, "Former Sunwest CEO, facing sentencing for $130 million fraud, apologizes for 'carnage and problems'":
U.S. prosecutors accuse former Sunwest Management CEO Jon Michael Harder of orchestrating the biggest investment fraud in Oregon history, and they are asking a judge to sentence him to 15 years in prison. IRS criminal investigators say that as the head of a vast network of assisted living centers, he helped make off with $130 million from 1,000 investors between 2006 and 2008.
Harder will go before a judge Monday morning for a rare two-day sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon, who found him guilty last January of mail fraud and money laundering.
Harder's legal team, seeking leniency, is asking Simon to sentence him to five years in prison. Assistant Public Defender Christopher J. Schatz took the unusual step of filing a court declaration that describes his client as possibly suffering from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder from the emotional clubbing he took after Sunwest's failures. "Many of the investors in Sunwest were family members, family friends and members of the Seventh Day Adventist community," Schatz wrote. "Mr. Harder feels that he let all the investors down, that he failed them all."
Harder, too, filed a court paper — a letter of apology to Simon. "I feel incredibly badly for all the carnage and problems that I have caused," he wrote. "I have obsessed, over the last 7 ½ years, about what I should have or could have done differently in operating Sunwest."
A government sentencing memo paints Harder as a chief executive who burned through corporate cash as if it were his own. He drove luxury cars, owned six homes, and once flew about 100 people to Alaska — most of them Sunwest employees — to go fishing.
Intriguingly, it seems that the federal sentencing guidelines would call for a much, much longer sentence for the fraudster than the sex offender: while Jared Fogle appears to be facing a guideline sentencing range of roughly 12 to 14 years, Jon Harder appears to be facing a guideline sentencing range of life without the possibility of parole.
November 16, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)
Sunday, November 15, 2015
"Who's Really Sentenced to Life Without Parole?: Searching for 'Ugly Disproportionalities' in the American Criminal Justice System"
The title of this post is the title of this interesting and important new paper by Craig Lerner digging deeply into the realities of LWOP sentencing in eight states. Here is the abstract:
Critics argue that the American criminal justice system is rife with “ugly disproportionalities” and “brutal penalties on the undeserving.” One particularly brutal punishment is the sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). The punishment, conceived decades ago as a substitute for the death penalty, scarcely exists in the rest of the world. Today, while capital punishment wanes in the United States, steadily increasing numbers of defendants are sentenced to LWOP. Furthermore, according to a recent ACLU Report, over 3,000 of the 50,000 inmates serving LWOP were convicted of nonviolent offenses. There is no uglier disproportionality than a defendant, guilty of a minor crime, banished to prison for the remainder of his life.
This Article questions this narrative and therewith the contemporary wisdom as to the brutality of American criminal justice, at least in its imposition of LWOP sentences. The author conducted a detailed study of every inmate sentenced to LWOP in eight states. In a few states, it is impossible to find a single inmate sentenced to LWOP for any crime other than murder or the most serious violent crimes. Even in jurisdictions that impose LWOP for crimes labeled “nonviolent,” the inmates are few in number and often present aggravating factors, such as extensive criminal histories or previous violent crimes. Inevitably, criminals sentenced to LWOP will vary in culpability, and some will appear not to merit this punishment. Drawing attention to their plight can spur executive clemency in individual cases. But accusations that the American legal system is rife with “ugly disproportionalities,” at least insofar as this claim is applied to LWOP sentences in the states, appear to have little merit.
Saturday, November 14, 2015
"Is Deterrence Relevant in Sentencing White-Collar Defendants?"
The question in the title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Peter Henning and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This article is part of the Wayne Law Review symposium “Sentencing White-Collar Defendants: How Much Is Enough?” held in October, 2014. The article looks at the primary justification for imposing punishment on a defendant convicted of a crime, which is deterrence of both the individual who committed the offense (special deterrence) and others similarly situated who will be dissuaded from pursuing similar misconduct (general deterrence). White-collar crimes are different from traditional street crimes, both in the type of conduct involved and the nature of the perpetrators.
One would expect that well-educated individuals, the type of person who commits a white-collar crime, would be easily deterred from violations because of the penalties suffered by others and knowledge of the consequences that is communicated through sentences imposed on others in the same industry or profession. This article considers whether that message is heard because most white-collar offenses occur in seemingly unique circumstances, at least from the defendant’s point of view, and the person rarely expects to be caught, or may even believe that the conduct is not a crime.
The real value of deterrence is in keeping judges from succumbing to the impulse to view white-collar defendants as offenders who, having many good qualities, should not suffer any significant punishment. Deterrence does not so much stop future crimes but acts as a means to inform judges about the need to impose punishments that do not let white-collar defendants use their social status and other resources to avoid the consequences of violations.
Friday, November 13, 2015
"Alternative Courts and Drug Treatment: Finding a Rehabilitative Solution for Addicts in a Retributive System"
The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Molly Webster now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Sentencing drug crimes and treating drug-addicted defendants often stem from contradictory theories of punishment. In the late twentieth century, courts traded rehabilitation for retributive ideals to fight the “War on Drugs.” However, beginning with the Miami-Dade Drug Court, treatment and rehabilitation have returned to the forefront of sentencing policy in traditional and alternative drug courts.
Jurisdictions have implemented a variety of policies designed to treat addiction as opposed to punishing it. Community courts, such as the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn, New York, community-panel drug courts, such as the Woodbury County Community Drug Court in Iowa, and Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement represent efforts to address treatment within the court system. This Note argues that certain policies are more likely to benefit drug-addicted defendants than others, including procedural justice, predictable sanctions, and an increased focus on treatment. It also posits that qualitative studies measuring long-term success of drug treatment programs should be commissioned to ensure that drug courts utilize the most effective treatment policies that promote rehabilitative ideals.
Thursday, November 12, 2015
"Who Gets Time for Federal Drug Offenses? Data Trends and Opportunities for Reform"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new data analysis from The Urban Institute. Here are snippets from the start and end of the short and reader-friendly report:
Almost half (45 percent) of the 95,305 individuals in federal prison for drug offenses are in the lowest two criminal history categories, indicating minimal prior convictions and a low risk of recidivism.2 In fact, over one-quarter (26 percent) have no prior criminal history.
Further, over three-quarters of all individuals in federal prison for drug offenses have no serious history of violence before the current offense. More than half have no violent history, and nearly a quarter have minor histories of violence, such as a simple assault and other crimes that do not typically lead to serious injury....
At the end of the FY 2014, individuals serving drug sentences accounted for 49 percent of the total federal prison population. Though recent policy changes have helped reverse upward trends in population size, the Urban Institute’s Federal Prison Population Forecaster shows that continuing population declines will require significantly shorter lengths of stay for drug offenses. Congressional leaders are considering legislative action that would reduce some mandatory minimum penalties and grant judges greater discretion to sentence individuals to shorter prison stays for drug offenses. While the exact impact of these bills is unknown, lasting reductions in the size of the federal prison population will only come from big cuts in lengths of stay for drug offenses. The Task Force will be considering such reforms as part of its deliberations and expects to build on the efforts under way in Congress.
Notable new ACLU report on impact of California's Prop 47 one year later
In this prior post last week, I reported on this Stanford Justice Advocacy Project report providing one perspective on the impact and import of California voters' embrace of criminal justice reform last year through Proposition 47. I have just seen that the ALCU of California has this week released its own report on this important topic. This report, titled "Changing Gears: California’s Shift to Smart Justice," covers lots of ground about local implementation of Prop 47. Here are excerpts from its six main findings (which has its numbering a bit off):
For this survey, the ACLU obtained and reviewed public records from sheriffs, probation chiefs, district attorneys, and behavioral health departments from around the state. The findings below are offered as a starting point for policymakers and advocates working to better understand the choices local agencies are making in responding to Prop 47 and the voter mandate behind it – and begin to evaluate whether those choices are appropriate.
1. Thousands are waiting for their Prop 47 resentencing/ reclassification petitions to be reviewed. Under Prop 47, people who may be eligible to change the felony on their record to a misdemeanor have a limited time to ask the court to make the change. The November 2017 deadline to apply is now just two years away. As of June 2015, courts statewide had reported a total of about 160,000 applications for Prop 47 relief – both for resentencing and reclassification.29 Responding to public records requests by the ACLU, many counties were unable to provide accurate data on how many people may still be incarcerated or under supervision awaiting resentencing. Although most counties acted quickly to establish a process for resentencing eligible incarcerated people, it is less clear how many people eligible for Prop 47 resentencing are still serving felony sentences under community supervision. According to Californians for Safety and Justice, there may be up to one million Californians who have an old felony on their record that may be eligible for reclassification....
2. Jail populations fell after Prop 47, but they are rising again. Due to overcrowding, jail populations in California are largely determined by jail administrators’ decisions about how to manage jail capacity. They determine who will be booked into jail and who will be released, how and under what conditions. Following enactment of Prop 47, jail populations statewide dropped by almost 11% from October 2014 to March 2015. During the same period, the number of people who were released early due to jail overcrowding dropped by one-third. However, jail populations soon began to increase again as administrators adjusted detention policies and practices....
3. Some in law enforcement have prioritized low-level arrests while others de-prioritized them. The ACLU obtained several county sheriff departments’ arrest numbers for low-level drug and property offenses for each month in 2014 through mid-2015. (Sheriff’s departments represent a small sample of the hundreds of law enforcement agencies in the state.) Changes in arrests in the fi rst six months of 2014 compared to the fi rst six months of 2015 demonstrate that local agencies are applying their discretion to arrest for Prop 47 offenses very differently....
4. Some county jails are making room for people charged with low-level offenses. The facts belie the claim by some in law enforcement that people facing misdemeanor charges cannot be jailed. In 2015, people facing misdemeanor charges are taking up a growing number of jail beds....
4. A majority of counties already require supervision for some people convicted of a low-level offense. In response to ACLU inquiries, 38 county probation departments reported supervising some people for misdemeanor convictions. Other counties put misdemeanants on court probation (which does not involve active monitoring). Following Prop 47, some counties reported putting people who have been resentenced from a felony to a misdemeanor under the supervision of the probation department. Other counties have chosen not to provide formal supervision....
5. Agencies have been focused on individual agency roles, rather than collaborative planning. In records provided to the ACLU, communication among criminal justice agencies at the county level have focused on the individual roles of each agency rather than on how best to maintain the county’s overall public safety goals. Few counties appear to have made the space to discuss how various agencies and the county as a whole should adjust policies and practices to ensure that counties adhere both to the legal requirements and the voter intent behind Prop 47.
A few (of many) prior related posts on Prop 47 and its impact:
- "Proposition 47 Progress Report: Year One Implementation"
- Interesting takes on California developments since passage of Prop 47
- Spotlighting significant back-end impact of Prop 47 sentencing reform in California
Tennessee soon to become first state with animal abuser registry
As reported in this local article, headlined "TBI will soon post animal abuse offenders," the Volunteer State is soon to have animal abuse offenders subject to required on-line registration. Here are the details:
Come January 1, Tennessee will post online a list of animals abusers near you. It will be similar to a sex offender registry, and Tennessee will be the first to have a statewide site.
"Her hind legs were put into a pot of water. Boiling water," said Cindy Marx-Sanders as she held Molly the chihuahua. Molly was rescued from an abusive home. "She is exactly why we need an animal abuser registry," Marx-Sanders said.
Marx-Sanders was one of the lobbyists who helped make an animal abuser registry a reality. By January, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation will have the statewide website up and running. It will be a registry open to the public with pictures of people convicted of felony animal cruelty.
A person convicted of hurting an animal would have their picture up for two years, but if convicted again, their picture would be up for five years.
State Rep. Darren Jernigan of Nashville was a sponsor. "We want to put it in one spot so someone in Memphis can't drive to Knoxville and get an animal if they're going to abuse it. It's going to be statewide," he said.
Angela Klein, with the Bartlett Animal Shelter, has seen her fair share of animal abuse. "Sometimes it can be pretty heart-breaking," she said Monday. She's glad to now have another resource to help combat abuse. "We can go online now and check to see if people are on that registry, and it will give us one more tool to help place animals into better homes," Klein said....
Marx-Sanders said it's a great start, but there's more that needs to be done. "It does need to be expanded to include state-level misdemeanors, which are just a little bit lower on the cruelty scale than the felony level, but is still neglect and cruelty."
Friday, November 06, 2015
SCOTUS grants review on federal/international sex offender registration issue
The big news from the US Supreme Court's order list this afternoon is the grant of review on another issue concerning the intersection of religious liberty and Obamacare requirements. But sentencing fans might be interested to see SCOTUS also took up a federal case involving sex offender registration laws: by granted cert on just question 1 in the case of Nichols v. United States, the Justices will consider later this Term "whether 42 U.S.C. $ 16913(a) requires a sex offender who resides in a foreign country to update his registration in the jurisdiction where he formerly resided, a question that divides the courts of appeals."
November 6, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)
Thursday, November 05, 2015
US Sentencing Commission hearing about how to fix Johnson problems in sentencing guidelines
As this webpage reports, this morning the US Sentencing Commission is holding a public hearing in Washington, DC "to receive testimony from invited witnesses on proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines." This hearing is being live-streamed here, and this hearing agenda now has links to all the scheduled witnesses' written testimony.
Helpfully, the start of this written testimony from the first witness, Judge Irene Keeley, Chair, Committee on Criminal Law of the Judicial Conference of the United States, provide a useful overview of what the USSC is working on:
On behalf of the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, I thank the Sentencing Commission for providing us the opportunity to comment on proposed changes to the sentencing guidelines definitions of “crime of violence” and related issues. The topic of today’s hearing is important to the Judicial Conference and judges throughout the nation. We applaud the Commission for undertaking its multi-year study of statutory and guideline definitions relating to the nature of a defendant’s prior conviction and the impact of such definitions on the relevant statutory and guideline provisions. We also thank the Commission for considering whether to promulgate these guideline amendments to address questions that have been or may be raised by the Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015).
The Judicial Conference has authorized the Criminal Law Committee to act with regard to submission from time to time to the Sentencing Commission of proposed amendments to the sentencing guidelines, including proposals that would increase the flexibility of the guidelines. The Judicial Conference has also resolved “that the federal judiciary is committed to a sentencing guideline system that is fair, workable, transparent, predictable, and flexible.”
As I discuss below, the Criminal Law Committee is generally in favor of the Commission’s proposed amendments, particularly those intended to address or anticipate questions raised by Johnson. As you know, the definition of the term “crime of violence” for purposes of the career offender guideline has been the subject of substantial litigation in the federal courts. We support any efforts to resolve ambiguity and simplify the legal approaches required by Supreme Court jurisprudence. Additionally, our Committee has repeatedly urged the Commission to resolve circuit conflicts in order to avoid unnecessary litigation and to eliminate unwarranted disparity in application of the guidelines. The Commission’s proposed amendment would reduce uncertainty raised by the opinion while making the guidelines more clear and workable.
With regard to the proposed guideline amendments concerning issues unrelated to Johnson, the Committee generally supports or defers to the Commission’s recommendations. The Committee opposes amending, however, the current definition of “felony” in the career offender guideline. Finally, the Committee supports revising other guidelines to conform to the definitions used in the career offender guideline to reduce complexity and make the guidelines system more simple and workable.
November 5, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, November 03, 2015
"The Bumpiness of Criminal Law"
The title of this post is the title of this notable paper by Adam Kolber now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Criminal law frequently requires all-or-nothing determinations. A defendant who reasonably believed his companion consented to sex may have no criminal liability, while one who fell just short of being reasonable may spend several years in prison for rape. Though their levels of culpability vary slightly, their legal treatment differs dramatically. True, the law must draw difficult lines, but the lines need not have such dramatic effects. We can precisely adjust fines and prison sentences along a spectrum.
Leading theories of punishment generally demand smooth relationships between their most important inputs and outputs. An input and output have a smooth relationship when a gradual change to the input causes a gradual change to the output. By contrast, actual criminal laws are often quite bumpy: a gradual change to the input sometimes has no effect on the output and sometimes has dramatic effects. Such bumpiness pervades much of the criminal law, going well beyond familiar complaints about statutory minima and mandatory enhancements. While some of the bumpiness of the criminal law may be justified by interests in reducing adjudication costs, limiting allocations of discretion, and providing adequate notice, I will argue that the criminal law is likely bumpier than necessary and suggest ways to make it smoother.
Sunday, November 01, 2015
SCOTUS back in action with week full of criminal law arguments
The US Supreme Court Justices return from a few weeks traipsing around the country (see SCOTUSblog mapping) to hear oral arguments this week in six cases, four of which involve criminal law issues. Drawing from this SCOTUSblog post by Rory Little, here are summaries of the criminal cases the Court will consider this week:
Monday, Nov. 2
Foster v. Chapman: Whether the Georgia courts erred in failing to recognize race discrimination under Batson v. Kentucky when state prosecutors struck all four prospective black jurors, offering “race-neutral” reasons, and it was later discovered that the prosecution had (1) marked with green highlighter the name of each black prospective juror; (2) circled the word “BLACK” on the questionnaires of five black prospective jurors; (3) identified three black prospective jurors as “B#1,” “B#2,” and “B#3”; (4) ranked the black prospective jurors against each other if “it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors.” (Georgia Supreme Court)
Tuesday, Nov. 3
Lockhart v. United States: Whether 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(2), requires a mandatory minimum ten-year prison term for a defendant convicted of possessing child pornography if he “has a prior conviction … under the laws of any State relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward,” is triggered by a prior conviction under a state law relating to “aggravated sexual abuse” or “sexual abuse,” even though the conviction did not “involv[e] a minor or ward.” (Second Circuit)
Torres v. Lynch: Whether, for immigration removal purposes, a state offense constitutes an aggravated felony under 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43), on the ground that the state offense is “described in” a specified federal statute, where the federal statute includes an interstate commerce element that the state offense lacks. (Second Circuit)
Wednesday, Nov. 4
Bruce v. Samuels: Whether the twenty-percent-of-income “cap” in the Prison Litigation Reform Act (28 U.S.C. § 1915(b)(2)), requiring in forma pauperis prisoners to still pay something toward the fee for filing federal cases, applies on a “per case” or “for all cases” basis. (D.C. Circuit)
Friday, October 30, 2015
SCOTUS grants cert on quirky aspect of federal gun prohibition case
As reported in this SCOTUSblog post, headlined "Court grants review in firearm-possession case," the Supreme Court decided today to take up a federal criminal case involving gun rights. But, interestingly, as Amy Howe explains in the post, the Court did not accept for review the Second Amendment issue lurking in the case:
This afternoon the Court issued an initial group of orders from its October 30 Conference, adding one new case to its merits docket for the Term. The Justices had considered Voisine v. United States at two earlier Conferences before granting review today.
At issue are the convictions of two Maine men, Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong, for violating a federal law that prohibits the possession of firearms and ammunition by individuals who have previously been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. Both men allege that their convictions under Maine law for simple assault and misdemeanor domestic violence assault, respectively, do not automatically qualify as misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence for purposes of the federal law, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9), because both provisions of Maine law can be violated by conduct that is merely reckless, rather than intentional. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit rejected that argument, and the federal government urged the Court to deny review, but the Justices today disregarded that recommendation.
Notably, however, the Court agreed to review only the recklessness question; it declined to review a second question presented by the petition, which asked the Justices to rule on whether the ban on possession of firearms by individuals convicted of domestic violence violated their rights under the Second Amendment.
Thursday, October 29, 2015
US Sentencing Commission provides estimates on likely impact of sentencing reforms in SRCA 2015
I have been remiss for failing to highlight in this space the notable analysis recently done by the US Sentencing Commission in conjunction with the Senate's work on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (basics of SRCA 2015, S. 2123, here). That analysis appears in full form in this extended statement by USSC Chair Patti Saris to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and it appears in summary form in this USSC news release praising the Committee's passage of SRCA 2015 through to the full Senate. Here are the key data appearing in short form in the press release:
According to the Commission’s analysis, key provisions of S. 2123 would:
• Provide retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which could allow 5,826 offenders currently in prison to receive an approximate 20 percent reduction in sentence.
• Permit certain offenders who are currently subject to the 10-year mandatory minimum penalty to be subject to the 5-year mandatory minimum instead, which would reduce the sentence of 550 offenders annually by approximately 19.3 percent.
• Broaden the safety valve to provide greater relief to more low-level, non-violent offenders, which would reduce the sentence of 3,314 offenders annually by nearly 20 percent and save 1,593 federal prison beds within 5 years of enactment.
• Reduce mandatory minimum penalties for recidivist drug offenders with prior drug felony convictions from 20 years to 15 years, and reducing the mandatory life imprisonment penalty for certain offenders to 25 years while both narrowing and expanding the types of prior offenses that could trigger a mandatory minimum.
• Reduce the mandatory minimum sentencing enhancement for using a firearm in the commission of a violent crime or drug offense from 25 years to 15 years, and narrow the circumstances in which multiple sentencing enhancements apply, which would reduce the sentence of 62 offenders annually by 30.4 percent.
• Reduces the mandatory minimum penalty under the Armed Career Criminal Act from 15 to 10 years, which would reduce the sentence of 277 offenders each year by approximately 21.6 percent. The bill would apply this provision retroactively, which, if granted, could result in a sentence reduction for 2,317 offender currently in federal prison.
Recent prior related posts on SRCA 2015:
- Bipartisan federal sentencing reform bill due to emerge from Senate today
- Basic elements of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015
- Leading distinct GOP Senators make the case for federal sentencing reform via SRCA 2015
- Senate Judiciary Committee moving forward next week on Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015
- Submitted testimony from witnesses at SRCA 2015 hearing (and member statements) now available
- SRCA 2015 passes through Senate Judiciary Committee by vote of 15-5
- Noting the potential sentencing reform benefit from the latest budget deal
October 29, 2015 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)
Did former House Speaker Hastert get a sweetheart sentencing deal from federal prosecutors?
The question in this post is prompted by this lengthy new Politico article headlined "Hastert's sweet deal: Lawyers question whether federal prosecutors are following guidelines." Here are excerpts:
House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s guilty plea in a hush-money case has some lawyers asking whether the former speaker is getting a sweetheart deal.
At a court hearing in Chicago Wednesday, the prosecution and defense unveiled Hastert’s plea bargain under which he admitted to a felony charge of structuring $952,000 into 106 separate bank withdrawals to avoid federal reporting requirements. The two sides agreed that sentencing guidelines call for Hastert to receive between zero and six months in jail.
But legal experts say those guidelines arguably call for a much longer sentence—closer to two to three years or more, including a potential enhancement for obstruction of justice. And some lawyers say they’re baffled that prosecutors would buy into a calculation that opens the door to Hastert getting a sentence of probation. “It seems like a sweet deal,” University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias said. “It’s just hard to understand.”
The indictment in the case also charged Hastert with lying to the FBI about what he did with the money, concealing that he paid it to a longtime associate in an effort to hide past misconduct. In the plea deal, Hastert admitted to misleading the FBI, but prosecutors agreed to drop the false statement charge....
The agreement between prosecutors and Hastert’s defense that the zero-to-six-month sentencing range is applicable to his case is not the end of the matter. A probation officer will also calculate the range and could disagree with the parties. Durkin will ultimately decide what the guidelines call for. Under the plea deal, Hastert retains the right to appeal the sentence to the 7th Circuit.
Under a 2005 Supreme Court decision, the judge is required to consult the guidelines but he can impose a more or less severe sentence. Experts in structuring cases say judges often sentence below the guidelines, especially in so-called “clean money” cases where the government does not allege that the funds were the product of illegal activity like drug dealing or were being used to avoid taxes.
"The sentencing guidelines for clean-source money cases are totally out of whack," the ex-prosecutor said. "It's insane to sentence someone for a purely regulatory violation as severely if not more severely than someone who defrauded someone out of $952,000. Having said that, there are a good measure of bad acts here, so maybe there would be some rough justice in it."
Prosecutors have alleged that Hastert paid the $952,000 in illegally structured withdrawals to a longtime associate because of Hastert’s past misconduct against that person, identified in court filings only as “Individual A.” Sources have alleged the behavior involved sexual contact with a male student while Hastert was a coach and high school teacher several decades ago, but the indictment does not mention any sexual aspect to the charges.
Experts say Hastert could not be charged or sued today over such acts years ago because the relevant statutes of limitations have expired. Lawyers say a key factor in Hastert's ultimate sentence could be whether Durkin decides Hastert's underlying misconduct is relevant for the purpose of sentencing on the bank reporting charge.
Criminal defense attorney Michael Monico, who co-authored a handbook on federal court practices in Illinois and the greater Midwest, said Durkin will want to know Hastert's motivation for paying out the $3.5 million and the exact nature of the behavior he was trying to hide.
"If I were the judge I would ask about it, I would want to know. I would want to know, what was he hiding?" Monico said. "I think that’s the number one question in the case: Is it relevant to his sentencing what Hastert did to this fellow decades ago? If it isn’t relevant, then probation is OK. If the conduct was despicable then it’s not an appropriate sentence. It seems to me that’s a question the judge has to answer."
October 29, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)
"The Corporation as Snitch: The New DOJ Guidelines on Prosecuting White Collar Crime"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new essay by Elizabeth Joh and Thomas Joo available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Volkswagen, the world’s largest auto maker, acknowledged in September 2015 that it had equipped its cars with software designed to cheat diesel emissions tests. The VW scandal may become the first major test of the Department of Justice’s recently announced guidelines that focus on individual accountability in white collar criminal investigations. Criminal investigations into safety defects at two other leading car makers, General Motors and Toyota, yielded no criminal charges against any individuals.
But in a recent speech announcing the new guidelines, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates stated, “Crime is crime,” whether it takes place “on the street corner or in the boardroom.” “The rules have just changed.” We raise questions about this new approach and some of its possible implications. The new cooperation policy’s emphasis on individual prosecutions could itself result in leniency: prosecutors may award excessively generous credit to corporations in order to build cases against individuals.
Wednesday, October 28, 2015
"Why California's Second-Degree Felony-Murder Rule Is Now Void for Vagueness"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Evan Tsen Lee now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
For years, justices on the California Supreme Court (CSC) have engaged in public soul-searching about whether to overrule the state’s second-degree felony-murder doctrine. Now there is a powerful external reason for the CSC to revisit the question: The United States Supreme Court (USSC) has just struck down the so-called “residual clause” of the federal three-strikes statute as unconstitutionally vague.
Although the immediate intuition of experienced judges and lawyers will be to deny that this decision has any application to the felony-murder rule, this Article will show that, from the standpoint of vagueness, the two provisions are materially indistinguishable.
Monday, October 26, 2015
Interesting takes on California developments since passage of Prop 47
I have long asserted that California has long been among the most interesting states to watch closely when it comes to crime and punishments. The latest round of developments involve the state's passage of an initiative, Proposition 47, reducing the severity of many offenses and subsequent reactions thereto. This new Los Angeles Times op-ed, authored by Robert Greene and headlined "California's Prop. 47 revolution: Were the voters duped?," provides a notable take on all this and a preview of more to commentary come. Here are exerpts:
Police and prosecutors have lately attempted to link increases in crime to last year's Proposition 47. Based on their overwrought statements, it would be understandable for Californians to start wondering whether they had been duped into completely decriminalizing drug possession and petty theft....
As is the case with all large bureaucracies, it is difficult for courts and for city and county agencies — police departments, sheriff's departments, district attorneys, probation officers, county supervisors — to understand and constructively respond to changed circumstances. And Proposition 47 no doubt brought change, by converting six felonies to misdemeanors and allowing many people serving sentences for those crimes, and those who served their time long ago, to be resentenced and have their rap sheets adjusted....
Crime in Los Angeles and some other communities throughout the state has increased this year after many years of decline. But is that because of Proposition 47? Other American cities, where Proposition 47 has no effect, have seen similar increases.
If the ballot measure is connected to rising crime, that's probably because public officials have been too slow to recognize the options that the measure gives them. And it's likely that their decisions — a deputy's decision not to arrest, for example, or the sheriff's not to make room in the jail for a recidivist offender pending trial, or county supervisors' not to use any of the hundreds of millions of dollars currently available for non-jail alternatives — are based on suppositions about how the other links in the public safety chain will react....
The gist of the reaction against Proposition 47 is that we as a society simply have no choice but to make possession of drugs and petty theft into felonies punishable by more than a year in prison if we want to control more serious crime. Similar warnings were issued about the consequences of modifying the three-strikes law, yet recidivism among strikers released from prison after voters adopted Proposition 36 is astonishingly low. And similar arguments were made against redirecting some felons from state prison and state parole to county jail and county probation, yet crime rates after realignment continued to fall.
In the coming week, The Times' Opinion section — the Opinion L.A. blog, the editorial board and the Op-Ed page — will explore the repercussions of Proposition 47, and compare this episode in criminal justice history with similar recent changes that also produced periods of adjustment. The goal is not to defend the voters' decision but rather to seek some honest talk, some accountability and some effective action on the part of public officials who are responsible for providing public safety, justice and wise and effective spending.
These follow-up opinion pieces provide, as their headlines suggest, pro and con views of the pros and cons of Prop 47:
Sunday, October 25, 2015
Federal judge makes extended pitch for individuals to receive deferred-prosecutions agreements from DOJ
This new CNN story, headlined "Judge: Prosecutors should give drug offenders same break as companies," reports on the remarkable coda that appears at the end of a remarkable federal district court opinion handed down this past week. The start of the CNN story provides a link to the opinion and its highlights:
Some defendants charged with drug crimes should be offered a second chance the way corporations often are. U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan proposed this in an 84-page opinion in cases against two corporations this week.
Sullivan approved a settlement that will allow the companies, each facing allegations of bribery to win government contracts, to settle criminal charges. They won't have to plead guilty and won't face trial as long as they stay out of trouble in the future.But he used the opinion to make a broader point about what he sees as a disparity in how the legal system treats corporations and nonviolent offenders.
"Drug conspiracy defendants are no less deserving of a second chance than bribery conspiracy defendants," Sullivan wrote. "And society is harmed at least as much by the devastating effect that felony convictions have on the lives of its citizens as it is by the effect of criminal convictions on corporations."Sullivan, who is in Washington, D.C., asked why companies get a shot at "rehabilitation" when many individuals do not.
Here are just a couple of notable paragraphs from the remarkable closing sections of US v. Saena Tech Corp. penned by Judge Sullivan:
Although the Court approves the two deferred-prosecution agreements in these cases, the Court observes that the current use of deferred-prosecution agreements for corporations rather than individual defendants strays from Congress’s intent when it created an exclusion from the speedy trial calculation for the use of such agreements. The Court is of the opinion that increasing the use of deferred-prosecution agreements and other similar tools for individuals charged with certain non-violent criminal offenses could be a viable means to achieve reforms in our criminal justice system....
The Court respectfully requests the Department of Justice to consider expanding the use of deferred-prosecution agreements and other similar tools to use in appropriate circumstances when an individual who might not be a banker or business owner nonetheless shows all of the hallmarks of significant rehabilitation potential. The harm to society of refusing such individuals the chance to demonstrate their true character and avoid the catastrophic consequences of felony convictions is, in this Court’s view, greater than the harm the government seeks to avoid by providing corporations a path to avoid criminal convictions. If the Department of Justice is sincere in its expressed desire to reduce over-incarceration and bolster rehabilitation, it will increase the use of deferred-prosecution agreements for individuals as well as increase the use of other available resources as discussed in this Opinion.
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
Federal judge decides (finally!) that Congress has limited DOJ prosecution of state-legal marijuana businesses
As regular readers may recall, Section 538 of a spending bill passed late last year by Congress forbids the use of money by the Department of Justice to interfere with State laws implementing medical marijuana programs. The meaning and application of this federal spending limitation on DOJ has been the subject of much dispute and some notable litigation, and yesterday brought a big ruling by US District Judge Charles Breyer. This article from California, headlined "Major victory for marijuana dispensary in federal court," provides the details:
Lawful medical cannabis operators across America scored a major victory in federal court [after] United States District Judge Charles R. Breyer ordered the lifting of an injunction against one of California’s oldest lawful dispensaries, the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana.
Judge Breyer ruled that newly enacted Congressional law — the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment — prevents the government from prosecuting the Fairfax-based Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, and its founder Lynette Shaw. The ruling in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California will have far-reaching legal impact, attorneys say....
In December, Congress de-funded the Justice Department’s war on medical marijuana in the states. Howver, the Justice Department has been narrowly interpreting Congressional law to continue the crackdown. The law’s authors contend Justice is breaking Congressional law by going after state-legal cannabis activity.
In June, Shaw’s attorney Greg Anton motioned for the Court to dissolve the injunction against Shaw, citing the new Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment (Section 538). Judge Breyer ruled, “the plain reading of [Congressional law] forbids the Department of Justice from enforcing this injunction against MAMM to the extent that MAMM operates in compliance with state California law.”
Judge Breyer ruled WAMM had been complying extensively with state law. “The mayor of the Town of Fairfax [stated] MAMM was operating as a model business in careful compliance with its local use permit in a ‘cooperative and collaborative relationship’ with the community,” Breyer noted in his ruling.
Judge Breyer’s ruling hands a shield to every state-legal pot shop facing federal action, lawyers state. It sets a precedent that will likely chill federal prosecutors eyeing state-legal medical cannabis enterprises, said the law office of attorney Robert Raich, through a spokesperson.
“We finally have a federal judge who is taking the authors of the spending amendment seriously when they say the intent and its wording should be interpreted so that the federal government should not be spending resources prosecuting individuals complying with state law.”
It represents a major setback for the Department of Justice, which had hoped Rohrabacher-Farr would be interpreted far more narrowly.
The full ruling by Judge Breyer is available at this link.
Some previous related posts:
- Defense moves to postpone federal marijuana sentencing based new law ordering DOJ not to prevent states from implementing medical marijuana laws
- Should ALL federal marijuana sentencings be postponed now that Cromnibus precludes DOJ from interfering with state medical marijuana laws?
- Notable developments in dispute over meaning and application of Section 538 limiting DOJ funding
Thursday, October 15, 2015
"Ending the war on drugs would not end mass incarceration" ... but it would help, perhaps a lot
The title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Post opinion piece authored by Charles Lane, plus a little commentary from me. The piece serves as fitting fact-check of recent sloppy statements about prison populations by Prez candidates (as do other recent similar pieces via PolitiFact and The Marshall Project). But, like lots of commentary highlighting the statistical realities of modern prison populations, I fear Lane here underplays the potential import and impact of significant changes in state and federal drug laws. Here are excerpts, with my extended commentary at the end:
It seems that no presidential debate this year would be complete without denunciations of the drug laws, which, it is alleged, result in long prison terms for thousands of people, disproportionately African Americans, who are guilty only of low-level offenses, thus fueling “mass incarceration.”
At the last Republican debate, on Sept. 16, former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina charged that “two-thirds of the people in our prisons are there for nonviolent offenses, mostly drug-related.”
Apropos of former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s admitted youthful marijuana use, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) observed that “there is at least one prominent example on the stage of someone who says they smoked pot in high school, and yet the people going to jail for this are poor people, often African Americans and often Hispanics, and yet the rich kids who use drugs aren’t.”
When Democrats faced off Tuesday night, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he is for marijuana legalization, “because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for nonviolent offenses. We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away, and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana.”
“I agree completely with the idea that we have got to stop imprisoning people who use marijuana. . . . We have a huge population in our prisons for nonviolent, low-level offenses that are primarily due to marijuana,” the front-running former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, chimed in.
Too bad this bipartisan agreement is contradicted by the evidence. Fiorina’s numbers, for example, are exaggerated: In 2014, 46 percent of all state and federal inmates were in for violent offenses (murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault), according to the latest Justice Department data. And this is a conservative estimate, since the definition of violent offense excludes roughly 30,000 federal prisoners, about 16 percent of the total, who are doing time for weapons violations.
Drug offenders account for only 19.5 percent of the total state-federal prison population, most of whom, especially in the federal system, were convicted of dealing drugs such as cocaine, heroin and meth, not “smoking marijuana.”
Undeniably, the population of state prisons (which house the vast majority of offenders) grew from 294,000 in 1980 to 1,362,000 in 2009 — a stunning 363 percent increase — though it has been on a downward trajectory since the latter date. But only 21 percent of that growth was due to the imprisonment of drug offenders, most of which occurred between 1980 and 1989, not more recently, according to a review of government data reported by Fordham law professor John Pfaff in the Harvard Journal of Legislation. More than half of the overall increase was due to punishment of violent offenses, not drugs, Pfaff reports....
Given the relatively small share of drug offenders, ending the war on drugs would not significantly alter the racial disparity in incarceration rates, contrary to the conventional wisdom. Blacks make up 37.5 percent of all state prisoners, about triple their share of the population as a whole, according to the Justice Department. If we released all 208,000 people currently in state prison on a drug charge, the proportion of African Americans in state prison would still be 37 percent. In short, ending the “war on drugs” is not quite the panacea for mass incarceration that politicians imply.
Marijuana legalization could help reduce arrest rates, to be sure; and to the extent fewer people get busted for smoking pot, that would, indeed, cut down on the resulting undue negative personal and social consequences. Otherwise, the bipartisan consensus in favor of looser drug laws is just the latest political free lunch, served up by politicians who would rather discuss anything except real public policy trade-offs.
Republicans and Democrats alike are propounding the crowd-pleasing notion that we can have less incarceration — saving the country billions of dollars and international shame — without risking an increase in violent crime, or other harms. In truth, if we released all 300,000 drug offenders from state and federal prison, the U.S. incarceration rate would still be far higher than it was three decades ago, and far higher than the rates of other industrial democracies.
The only way to lower it dramatically would be to reduce the frequency and duration of imprisonment for violent crimes, while continuing to reduce violent crime itself. If any of the candidates has a plan to do that, he or she should speak up.
Lane is quite right to highlight the statistical reality that lots more imprisoned offenders are behind bars for violent offenses than for drug crimes. But he fails to ackowledge that a considerable amount of violent crime is related to black market turf wars and that the failure to treat effectively drug addictions and related woes often drive property crimes. American legal and social history should provide a ready reminder of these realities: violent and property crimes (and incarceration rates) spiked considerably during alcohol Prohibition not because of greater alcohol use but due to enhanced incentives for otherwise law-abiding people to profit in the black market from others' desire for a drink.
Regular followers of this blog likely recall the case of (my former client) Weldon Angelos, which provides a clear example of a low-level marijuana dealer serving decades in federal prison based technically on "violent firearm crimes." The modern federal drug war explained why an informant (himself fearing a long federal drug sentence) told authorities Angelos was a major drug dealer, why federal prosecutors threated Angelos with over 100 years mandatory imprisonment if he did not forgo his right to a trial after te informant arranged to buy marijuana from Angelos, and why even after his acquittal on some charges, a federal judge was bound by law to give Angelos 55 years in federal prison for having firearms nearby as he sold the informant a relatively small amount of marijuana.
I bring all this up because, again to recall American history, four score ago the ending of alcohol Prohibition indeed did itself significantly help to "reduce violent crime itself." I am cautiously hopeful that ending marijuana prohibition will help have the same effect in the modern era. More broadly, I sincerely believe we would further reduce violent crime by ending a drug war that relies on state violence and condemnation and investing monies saved (and taxes earned) into a significant public-health commitment to address serious drug addictions using evidence-based treatments.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Charles Koch Institute produces great set of short videos urging crimnal justice reforms
I am really intrigued, and really impressed, by this new set of one-minute videos created by the the Charles Koch Institute under the banner "Criminal Justice and Policing Reform Explainer." Here are the topics and links to the videos, and I have embedded the one on mandatory minimums below:
Saturday, October 10, 2015
Via the National Review, an unintended parody of various arguments against modest federal sentencing reform
I generally respect and benefit form the work Bill Otis does over at Crime & Consequences criticizing sentencing reform movements because, despite sometimes overheated rhetoric, he generally uses sound data and reasonable aguments to make out the best case in defense of the modern federal sentencing status quo. Though I think Bill is often wrong on the merits, especially with respect to federal statutory sentencing reform issues, he is justifiably seen as an important voice in the public-policy debate because he regularly makes responsible and sober claims in support of his various positions.
I bring all this up as a prelude to spotlighting this notable new National Review commentary by Andrew McCarthy, headlined "Keep Minimum Sentencing, to Discourage Criminals." This lengthy piece, in my view, reads almost like a parody (unintentionally, I assume) of many arguments against federal sentencing reform that Bill and some other prosecutors make much more soundly in other settings. Here are some few passages from the piece that strike me as especially cringe-worthy:
Young Americans for whom the Reagan administration is ancient history, New Yorkers who grew up in the post-Giuliani City — they have no memory of what it was like from the Sixties into the early Eighties. For them, the revolution in crime-fighting that so dramatically improved the quality of American life is not revolutionary. It is simply ... life. There is nothing hard-won about it. It is not informed by the dark days when rampant crime was fueled by a criminal-rights campaign premised on many of the same loopy ideas that undergird Washington’s latest fetish, “sentencing reform.”
The worst of those ideas is to roll back “mandatory minimum” sentences. These are terms of imprisonment, often harsh ones, that must be imposed for serious crimes. Mandatory minimums tie the hands of judges, mandating that they take hard criminals off the streets rather than slap them on the wrists. Before the Reagan era, federal penal laws prescribed potentially severe sentences for serious offenses ...[but a] judge was also free to impose the minimum sentence of no time whatsoever. What punishment to impose within that expansive statutory range from zero to 50 years was wholly the judge’s call. In effect, this nearly boundless discretion transferred control over punishment for crime from the public to the courts.
Federal judges tend to be very good at the difficult job they are trained to do: apply law, which is frequently arcane and sometimes inconsistent, to factual situations, which have their own complexities. This skill, however, does not necessarily translate into expertise in making punitive judgments that are governed less by legal rules than gut feeling — gut feeling being what controls broad discretion....
Even if many judges were not instinctively sympathetic to arguments in favor of harsh sentencing, sympathy comes with the institutional territory. The judge’s duty is not to promote public safety; it is to ensure that parties before the court receive justice. It is a bedrock conceit of those who toil in the justice system that the public perception of justice is just as vital as the objective reality of justice. Thus, the judge has great incentive to bend over backward to give convicted defendants every bounce of the due-process ball.
It is a lot easier to call for a harsh sentence from the peanut gallery than to be the judge who has to impose a sentence after a desperate plea for leniency has been made and while the defendant’s mother, wife, and kids weep in the first row. So whether the pressures were ideological, institutional, or rooted in human nature, judges were often weak sentencers. That weakness translated into the inadvertent promotion of crime by failing to disincentivize it and failing to sideline career criminals. Mandatory minimums were thus enacted by overwhelming congressional margins in order to divest judges of the discretion to impose little or no jail time for serious crimes and habitual criminals.
It is the latest Beltway fashion to demand that mandatory minimums be rolled back, if not repealed, on the theory that incarceration causes rather than drastically reduces crime. Or, since that claim doesn’t pass the laugh test, on the theory that incarceration is racist — the great American conversation ender. Beyond the in terrorem effect of the racism smear, the latter rationale relies on the overrepresentation of minorities, particularly blacks and illegal aliens, in the prison population — and banks on your being too cowed to bring up the overrepresentation of minority communities in the crime-victim population.
Alas, a “reform” that reduces mandatory minimums will benefit only one class of people — serious felons who commit many more crimes than they are prosecuted for. And racism? Please. We have, to take one pertinent example, a harsh mandatory minimum sentence for predators who are convicted of a felony after having previously being convicted of three other serious crimes. Congress wasn’t targeting race; it was targeting sociopaths.
Understand, I am not contending that the criminal-justice system is without flaws badly in need of correction. But the main problem is not severe sentencing. It is over-criminalization.
Too much formerly innocent private conduct has become prohibited, making criminals out of essentially law-abiding people. Law is supposed to be a reflection of society’s values, not a tool by which society is coerced to transform its values. Moreover, when the statutes, rules, and regulations proliferate to the point that it becomes unreasonable to expect average people to know what is forbidden, we no longer have a nation of laws; we have a nation of men arbitrarily deciding which of the presumptively guilty get punished and which go unscathed.
If a problem is not accurately diagnosed, it will not be cured. There is a prescription for what ails us, but it is most certainly not a repeal of the severe sentences enacted to address serious crime. Nothing that rewards real criminals at the expense of the people they victimize should trade under the name of “reform.”
I share the closing sentiment that a problem need to be accurately diagnosed to be solved. But there are so many problems in the arguments before that sentiment, I almost feel unable to unpack them all in the space. What I find especially peculiar are the suggestions here that sound sentencing is necessarily only about "gut feeling," that it is problematic judges consider "every bounce of the due-process ball," and that sentencing would be better if more attentive to every "call for a harsh sentence from the peanut gallery." Also remarkable is the suggestion that any and everyone subject to an existing federal mandatory minimum is a "sociopath" that must be subject to severe punishment because surely they have committed "many more crimes than they are prosecuted for."
All these curious contentions aside, I find it especially remarkable how McCarthy concludes after saying nothing is wrong with the harsh mandatory drug and gun sentences created in recent decades by Congress and applied (inconsistently) by federal prosecutors. He says the "main" problem is other federal criminal laws created in recent decades by Congress and applied (inconsistently) by federal prosecutors which creates, so he claims, a "nation of men arbitrarily deciding which of the presumptively guilty get punished and which go unscathed." In other words, it seems, when it comes to imposing punishment for crimes, we should continue to distrust modern judges and trust old mandatory sentencing laws created by Congress in the 1980s, but when it comes to defining what is a crime, we should not trust Congress because somehow they enact criminal laws (but not "severe sentences") that are not really "a reflection of society’s values."
I trust I am not the only one who see how backward a lot of what is being said here. But apparently the folks at the National Review see reasonable logic or some kind of wisdom here that perhaps requires spending more time in the Beltway to understand. Or maybe I just need to go re-watch Breaking Bad, which NR has extolled, so I can better understand the "sociopaths" federal judges cannot be trusted to sentence properly because they have the wrong "gut feeling" while concerned with "every bounce of the due-process ball."
Tuesday, October 06, 2015
The title of this post is the title of this notable paper about a notable federal sentencing provision authored by Miriam Baer and now available on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This essay, written for the Wayne Law Review’s 2014 Symposium on white collar crime and sentencing, examines the rising popularity of the “sophisticated means” enhancement under Section 2B1.1 of the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Over the past decade, the rate at which federal courts apply the enhancement in criminal fraud cases has more than tripled.
This Essay considers several possible explanations for the enhancement’s increasing prevalence, including the possibilities that: (i) fraud offenders as a whole have become more sophisticated; (ii) federal prosecutors are investigating and charging more sophisticated frauds; and (iii) the enhancement’s meaning has, over time, gradually expanded to include additional conduct, a phenomenon I refer to as “sentencing creep.” With this final explanation in mind, the Essay concludes with some practical advice for reinvigorating the enhancement as a useful sorting device.
"Man 'too high' on marijuana calls Austintown police for help"
The title of this post is the headline of this (amusing?) article from a local Ohio paper that almost reads like a story from The Onion. Here are the details:
Township police were called to a home Friday night by a man who complained he was “too high” after smoking marijuana. According to a police report, authorities were called to the 100 block of Westminister Avenue at about 5:20 p.m. Friday by a 22-year old male who had smoked the drug.
The officer who responded to the home could hear the man groaning from a room.The officer then found the man lying “on the floor in the fetal position” and “was surrounded by a plethora of Doritos, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish and Chips Ahoy cookies,” the report said. The man also told police he couldn’t feel his hands.
A glass pipe with marijuana residue, two packs of rolling papers, two roaches and a glass jar of marijuana were recovered from the man’s car after he gave the keys to police.
The man declined medical treatment at the home Friday night. Austintown police have not charged the man in the incident as of late Monday morning.
I am tempted to react to this story by wondering aloud if the cop-calling, worried-weed consumer has twice enjoyed (white?) privilege by (1) thinking he could seek help from the police for his pot problem, and (2) for not yet getting arrested or charged for his various crimes. But rather than turn this story serious, I will instead just request that readers help me imagine funnier headlines for this tale of foolishness.
Sunday, October 04, 2015
Three of Kettle Falls Five get sentenced to real federal time for marijuana grow in Washington state
As reported in this AP article, headlined "Marijuana growers sentenced to federal prison," a high-profile federal marijuana prosecution, in a state in which marijuana slaes are now legal, culminated in sentencing late last week. Here are the details:
The three remaining defendants in the case of the so-called Kettle Falls Five were sentenced to federal prison on Friday for growing marijuana in a state where both the medical and recreational use of marijuana are legal under Washington laws.
The defendants are known as the Kettle Falls Five because of their original number. They were convicted earlier this year of growing marijuana on their rural property near Kettle Falls, in violation of federal law.
Rolland Gregg was sentenced Friday to 33 months in prison, followed by three years of probation. His wife Michelle Gregg, 36, was sentenced to one year in prison and three years of probation. Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, 56, who is Rolland Gregg's mother, was also sentenced to one year in prison and three years of probation.
All three remain free pending the outcome of appeals.... The case had been closely watched nationally by marijuana activists, who criticized the federal government for prosecuting marijuana growers in a state where cannabis is legal.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Earl Hicks rejected the notion that the defendants were growing the pot for their own medical use. "This is a for-profit marijuana grow," Hicks said. "It has nothing to do with medical marijuana."
Prosecutors contended the defendants grew more than 100 pounds of marijuana in 2011 and 2012, far in excess of their personal needs. Defense attorneys argued for sentences of probation only. "This was not a for-profit marijuana grow," said attorney Phil Tefleyan, who represented Rolland Gregg.
Larry Harvey was excused from the case when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year and has since died. Family friend Jason Zucker accepted a plea deal from federal prosecutors and testified for the government at trial in exchange for a 16-month penalty.
The remaining three were convicted in March by a federal jury of growing between 50 and 100 marijuana plants on their rural property, which was searched by investigators in 2012. Since then, Washington has also legalized the recreational use of marijuana. But growing and possessing marijuana remains a crime under federal laws.
The defendants did not dispute that they grew marijuana, but contended they grew less than the government alleged. The jury exonerated them of more serious charges of distributing marijuana, conspiracy to distribute and firearms charges that carried long prison sentences.
Saturday, October 03, 2015
"Why Don’t Courts Dismiss Indictments? A Simple Suggestion for Making Federal Criminal Law a Little Less Lawless"
The title of this post is the title of this notable Green Bag article authored by James Burnham. Here are excerpts from the article's introduction:
Many lawyers are familiar with the problem of overbroad, vague federal criminal laws that ensnare unwary defendants and perplex the lawyers who defend them. It is a recurring theme in academic literature and it featured prominently in Justice Kagan’s recent dissent in Yates v. United States, where she described “the real issue” in the case as being “overcriminalization and excessive punishment in the U.S. Code.”... [Many commentators] often jump directly to the Constitution as the solution to this problem, specifically the Due Process Clause and an emphasis on fair notice as a way to narrow vaguely worded statutes.
That is a good idea, but it overlooks a tool for combating overcriminalization that is, perhaps, simpler and more readily available than the heavy artillery of constitutional law–making it easier for criminal defendants to secure a legal ruling before trial on whether their alleged conduct actually constitutes a federal crime. Implementing this basic reform would require nothing more than applying the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which already contain provisions for dismissing indictments that are materially identical to the familiar 12(b)(6) standard and the rules for dismissing civil complaints. Yet the same federal judges who routinely dismiss complaints for failure to state a claim virtually never dismiss indictments for failure to state an offense. The judiciary’s collective failure to apply the dismissal standard in criminal proceedings that is a staple of civil practice plays a central role in the ever-expanding, vague nature of federal criminal law because it largely eliminates the possibility of purely legal judicial opinions construing criminal statutes in the context of a discrete set of assumed facts, and because it leaves appellate courts to articulate the boundaries of criminal law in post-trial appeals where rejecting the government’s legal theory means overturning a jury verdict and erasing weeks or months of judicial effort.
Courts should eliminate this anomalous difference between criminal and civil procedure. There is no good reason why federal prosecutors cannot abide by the same pleading standards as civil plaintiffs. That is what the rules already provide. And holding prosecutors to that reasonable standard would go a long way toward making federal criminal law a little less lawless.
Thursday, October 01, 2015
Basic elements of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015
As I write this, I am watching (at this link) the tail end of speeches being given by a series of US Senators discussing their pleasure and thanks concerning the bipartisan agreement to propose the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (which I will start calling SRCA 2015). Here are links to two documents provided by the Senate Judiciary Committee summarizing what appears in this bill:
Here ais the full text of the summary document:
Reforms and Targets Enhanced Mandatory Minimums for Prior Drug Felons: The bill reduces the enhanced penalties that apply to repeat drug offenders and eliminates the three-strike mandatory life provision, but it allows those enhanced penalties to be applied to offenders with prior convictions for serious violent and serious drug felonies.
Broadens the Existing Safety Valve and Creates a Second Safety Valve: The bill expands the existing safety valve to offenders with more extensive criminal histories but excludes defendants with prior felonies and violent or drug trafficking offenses unless a court finds those prior offenses substantially overstate the defendant’s criminal history and danger of recidivism. The bill also creates a second safety valve that gives judges discretion to sentence certain low-level offenders below the 10-year mandatory minimum. But defendants convicted of serious violent and serious drug felonies cannot benefit from these reforms.
Reforms Enhanced Mandatory Minimums and Sentences for Firearm Offenses: The bill expands the reach of the enhanced mandatory minimum for violent firearm offenders to those with prior federal or state firearm offenses but reduces that mandatory minimum to provide courts with greater flexibility in sentencing. The bill also raises the statutory maximum for unlawful possession of firearms but lowers the enhanced mandatory minimum for repeat offenders.
Creates New Mandatory Minimums for Interstate Domestic Violence and Certain Export Control Violations: The bill adds new mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes involving interstate domestic violence and creates a new mandatory minimum for providing weapons and other defense materials to prohibited countries and terrorists.
Applies the Fair Sentencing Act and Certain Sentencing Reforms Retroactively
Provides for Prison Reform based on the Cornyn-Whitehouse CORRECTIONS Act: The bill requires the Department of Justice to conduct risk assessments to classify all federal inmates and to use the results to assign inmates to appropriate recidivism reduction programs, including work and education programs, drug rehabilitation, job training, and faith-based programs. Eligible prisoners who successfully complete these programs can earn early release and may spend the final portion (up to 25 percent) of their remaining sentence in home confinement or a halfway house.
Limits Solitary Confinement for Juveniles in Federal Custody and Improves the Accuracy of Federal Criminal Records
Provides for a Report and Inventory of All Federal Criminal Offenses
WOWSA!! And the more detailed section-by-section analysis suggests that lots and lots of badly over-sentenced federal offenders subject to extreme mandatory minimum sentencing provisions in not-so-extreme cases (including folks I have represented or filed amicus briefs on behalf of like Weldon Angelos and Edward Young) might be able to get retroactive relief if this legislation becomes law!! Thus, to summarize, just the introduction of SRCA 2015 is a huge development, and I strongly believe its provisions can will significantly reshape the federal sentencing and prison system if (and I hope when) it becomes law.
Though I will still need to see the precise text before I will be in a position to really assess all that appears in this bill, these summary documents confirm my hope that this bill was likely to be among the biggest and most ambitious federal sentencing reform efforts we have seen since the enactment of the Sentencing Reform Act more than three decades ago. Mega-kudos to all involved, Senators and staffers and advocates of all stripes, and now let's see if all the good mojo that this SRCA 2015 represents might get this bill through the Congress in the coming weeks!!
UPDATE: The full text of the SRCA runs 141 pages, and the folks at FAMM have it available at this link.
October 1, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24)
Bipartisan federal sentencing reform bill due to emerge from Senate today
In part because October is my favorite month, I am likley to remember that a potentially historic federal sentencing reform bill emerged from behind the Senate negotiating curtain on the first day of October 2015. This New York Times article, headlined "Senators to Unveil Bipartisan Plan to Ease Sentencing Laws," previews some of what we should expect to see in the bill. Here are excerpts:
A long-awaited bipartisan proposal to cut mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent offenders and promote more early release from federal prisons is scheduled to be disclosed Thursday by an influential group of senators who hope to build on backing from conservatives, progressives and the White House.
The comprehensive plan, which has the crucial support of Senator Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who heads the Judiciary Committee, is the product of intense and difficult negotiations between Republicans and Democrats who hope to reduce the financial and societal costs of mass incarceration that have hit minority communities particularly hard.
The push has benefited from an unusual convergence of interests in an otherwise polarized Washington and has become a singular issue that usually warring groups have rallied around. Progressive advocacy groups have embraced the possibility of less jail time and better preparation for offenders when they are released; conservatives have championed the potential savings in reducing prison populations and spending on the strained criminal justice system.
According to those familiar with the still-secret agreement, the legislation proposes an extensive set of changes in federal sentencing requirements. Those changes include a reduction in mandatory minimum sentencing to five years from 10 for qualified cases; a reduction in automatic additional penalties for those with prior drug felonies; and more discretion for judges in assessing criminal history.
The legislation would also ban solitary confinement for juveniles in nearly all cases, and allow those sentenced as juveniles to seek a reduction in sentencing after 20 years. Many of the new rules could be applied retroactively to people now serving time.
The authors also took steps to deny any new leniency to those who committed serious violent crimes or drug felonies. And the bill would put some new mandatory minimum sentences in place for those convicted of interstate domestic violence or providing weapons or other material to terrorists or certain countries.
Lawmakers hoping for more sweeping changes did not win the acrosstheboard reductions in mandatory minimum sentences they had sought when the negotiations began. They compromised to win the backing of Mr. Grassley, who in the past has been critical of broad efforts to reduce prison time.
If the authors wish to push the legislation through this year, it will require an aggressive effort and a decision by Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, to make the measure a priority. The bill is most likely to be considered by the Judiciary Committee this month, with a committee vote possible on Oct. 22. Congressional consideration could also be kicked into 2016....
Backers of a criminal justice overhaul were not aware of the details of the legislative deal, which senators were trying to keep under wraps until the announcement Thursday, but they welcomed the movement toward getting the debate in the public arena.
“This sounds good to us,” said Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries, which has led conservatives in calling for new sentencing laws and is part of the bipartisan Coalition for Public Safety. “It is a good place to start, and hopefully this will be the impetus that gets things moving.” Holly Harris, the executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, another part of the coalition, noted that “the devil is in the details.”
I share the sentiments that this sounds like a pretty good deal and that the devil is really in the details. But, absent the details looking very ugly, I am going to be a vocal and aggressive advocate for this bill because it seems like the only federal sentencing reform proposal with any realistic chance of getting to President Obama's desk while he is still President Obama.
Tuesday, September 29, 2015
"Heroin, Murder, and the New Front in the War on Drugs"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy and effective new Vice article. Here are excerpts:
It can be tough to find a true villain among the legions using and selling opioids, two groups that often overlap. This is especially true given that for many, heroin use was preceded by the abuse of widely-prescribed opioids like OxyContin, which as of 2013, was responsible for more deaths than heroin....
But prosecutors across America are dusting off old statutes to pursue full-fledged murder charges against dealers and even fellow users and friends who pass or sell heroin to a person who then dies of an overdose. Possible sentences include life without parole. The law-and-order crackdown is taking place at a moment when prominent figures in both major parties are, for the first time in decades, seriously considering reducing a jail and prison population that has grown to well more than 2 million — and curbing a war on drugs that has persistently failed to dampen the appetite for the stuff....
So far, the number of such charges that have been filed, and the criteria by which prosecutors are deciding to use them, remain murky. The phenomenon has received little attention from legal scholars and activists, and the charges have surprised defense lawyers who end up handling the cases....
So far, it seems like plenty of smalltime hook-ups are getting caught in the fray. In September 2013, Joseph L. Robinson, an Illinois man living near near St. Louis, was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for selling a man who later died two-tenths of a gram of heroin — for $30. Jim Porter, a spokesperson for Southern District of Illinois US Attorney Stephen Wigginton, says there was nothing else that made the crime particularly heinous. If there had been, he says, the sentence could have been even longer.
The prosecutions also run counter to the widespread adoption of harm-reduction policies like equipping first responders with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, as well as "good Samaritan" laws, which offer limited legal protection to people who call 9-1-1 to report a drug-related medical emergency. But those laws typically offer immunity from low-level possession charges and not for drug dealing, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures — let alone for drug-related murder charges. Prosecutors hope that harsh charges will deter dealers and keep drugs away from users, but they could also convince drug addicts to flee the scene and leave someone dying on the floor.
The charges could even encourage violence on the part of dealers determined to silence informants. "To bring punitive criminal justice responses to these situations will not prevent the underlying concern and will likely only exacerbate the situation due to those involved not speaking to police or emergency personnel, or even becoming violent to avoid such charges," Art Way, Colorado director for the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization critical of the drug war, writes in an email. "Much of the violence involved in and around the drug trade involves the intimidating or killing of informants or those considered to be informants."...
In the Cleveland and Toledo area, Steven Dettelbach, the US Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, is charging dealers under a federal law that potentially carries a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence for a drug-dealing offense resulting in death or serious injury—and mandatory life for someone with a prior felony drug conviction. In Cuyahoga County, there were 198 heroin-related deaths in 2014, according to the Northeast Ohio Media Group. "Federal penalties are extremely serious, and the people who are out there dealing what amounts to poison need to get the message that this is going to be treated like a homicide," Dettelbach tells VICE in an interview.
Though former Attorney General Eric Holder instructed federal prosecutors to pursue harsh mandatory minimums more judiciously in 2013, that doesn't mean they won't seek long sentences for drug crimes, according to Dettelbach. Rather, he says his office is focusing such charges on the most serious of offenders, particularly those dealing heroin mixed with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, which has been linked to many overdose deaths. "The fentanyl issue is actually now becoming more acute than the straight heroin issue," Dettelbach says. "In my mind, I will just tell you it's hard to be a dealer in fentanyl and claim that you don't know its going to kill some people."
Federal prosecutors in states around the country, including Oregon, Texas, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, are filing these kinds of charges in response to opioid deaths. In Southern Illinois, Porter says that their office began to file such charges after Wigginton's 2010 appointment, and that he has so far won 11 convictions. In July, a federal judge in Kentucky sentenced a man to life without parole for dealing oxycodone to a user who died; that district's US Attorney's Office said it was "the first time in Kentucky that a life sentence was imposed in an overdose death case involving prescription drugs."...
State prosecutors also appear to be pursuing harsh charges with growing frequency. In Wisconsin, prosecutors charged 71 people with first-degree reckless homicide by drug delivery in 2013, an increase from 47 in 2012, according to USA Today.
In New Jersey, Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato has made these sorts of charges a focus, and his office is training police around the state on how to investigate heroin-related deaths. "We kind of call it our checkmate charge," says Al Della Fave, a spokesperson....
State and federal laws don't limit these charges to major dealers, or to those who act with malicious intent. In New Orleans, Chelcie Schleben and her reported ex-boyfriend Joshua Lore currently face life without parole for the February 2014 fatal overdose "murder" of 23-year-old Kody Woods. The charges are severe "even by extreme Louisiana standards," says Stephen Singer, a professor at Loyola Law School and Schleben's lawyer.
Louisiana already has the highest number of nonviolent offenders serving life without parole, according to a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report, and state drug sentences tend to be extraordinarily harsh. Last year, Governor Bobby Jindal signed legislation lengthening the possible sentence for repeat heroin dealers to 99 years.
In Charleston, West Virginia, prosecutors have charged Steven Craig Coleman with murder in connection with a February heroin-related death. Rico Moore, Coleman's lawyer, is mystified by the charges. "He's a drug user," Moore says. "He's not as they allege—he's not a drug dealer... It makes absolutely no sense to punish someone who's an addict." According to Moore, Coleman's opioid addiction stems from his abuse of lawfully-prescribed drugs. Coleman is poor, he says, his mother died from drug use, and his father is an addict....
In Ohio, prosecutors don't yet have the ability to seek the harshest penalties available under state law for these deaths—but they want them. Last September, Hamilton County Prosecutor County prosecutor Joseph T. Deters announced involuntary manslaughter charges for involvement in a fatal intoxication, the first time, according to their office, such charges had been filed in county history. Deters took the opportunity to complain that the the law should "be strengthened to allow us to charge these kinds of cases as murder... If the law is changed, drug dealers would then be facing the possibility of life in prison for selling the drugs that take too many lives."
Last year, legislation to that effect passed the state house in Ohio with Attorney General Mike DeWine's enthusiastic support. Republican State Rep. Jim Butler, who introduced the legislation, plans to reintroduce a bill altered to better ensure that mere users are not the ones prosecuted for deaths. But he wants to tack on an increase in sentences for drug trafficking as well. "I think what we need to do is be tougher on drug traffickers and be more compassionate to drug users," he says.
Monday, September 28, 2015
FBI releases national crime data reporting 2014 continued historic crime declines
If there was a close causal inverse relationship between crime and nationwide sentencing and prison reforms, one might have reasonably expected crime rates to have started moving up in recent years. After all, at the federal level there have been dramatic reforms over the last decade ranging from (1) the Supreme Court's Booker ruling making the guidelines advisory and various other rulings restricting in the reach of other mandatory sentencing provisions, (2) the US Sentencing Commission repeatedly reducing the severity of the sentencing guidelines for crack offenses and other drugs and other offenses, and (3) Congress enacting the Fair Sentencing Act. During the same period, many states north and south, east and west (including California and Texas, the two states with the largest prison populations), have reformed sentencing laws and prison policies in various ways.
But, as this new press release from the FBI reports, the "estimated number of violent crimes in the nation decreased 0.2 percent in 2014 when compared with 2013 data, according to FBI figures released today. Property crimes decreased by 4.3 percent, marking the 12th straight year the collective estimates for these offenses declined." Here is more of the good crime news via the FBI:
The 2014 statistics show the estimated rate of violent crime was 365.5 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants, and the property crime rate was 2,596.1 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants. The violent crime rate declined 1.0 percent compared to the 2013 rate, and the property crime rate declined 5.0 percent. These and additional data are presented in the 2014 edition of the FBI’s annual report Crime in the United States. This publication, which 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, also includes limited federal crime reporting and human trafficking data.
The UCR Program collects information on crimes reported by law enforcement agencies regarding the violent crimes of murder and non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault as well as the property crimes of burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson.... The program also collects arrest data for the offenses listed above plus 20 offenses that include all other crimes except traffic violations....
A total of 18,498 city, county, state, university and college, tribal, and federal agencies participated in the UCR Program in 2014. A high-level summary of the statistics reported by these agencies, which are included in Crime in the United States, 2014, follows:
In 2014, there were an estimated 1,165,383 violent crimes. Murder and non-negligent manslaughter decreased 0.5 percent and robbery decreased 5.6 percent when compared with estimates from 2013. Rape (legacy definition) and aggravated assault, however, increased 2.4 percent and 2.0 percent, respectively.
Nationwide, there were an estimated 8,277,829 property crimes. The estimated numbers of each of the property crimes show declines when compared with the previous year’s estimates. Burglaries dropped 10.5 percent, larceny-thefts declined 2.7 percent, and motor vehicle thefts were down 1.5 percent.
Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Wisconsin appeals court declares unconstitutional criminalization of sex offenders photographing kids in public
As reported in this local article, a "Wisconsin law prohibiting registered sex offenders from photographing children in public violates their right to free speech, the state Court of Appeals held Tuesday." Here is more about this notable ruling concerning a notable sex offender restriction:
The decision by the Wausau-based District 3 court reversed the conviction of a 44-year-old Green Bay man who had been sentenced to 12 years in prison for the non-pornographic photos. It also found the law unconstitutional on its face, not salvageable by a narrowed interpretation or severing part of the statute.
Because of a 2002 child sexual assault conviction, Christopher J. Oatman was on probation in February 2011, when his agent searched his apartment and found a camera and cellphone. On them, authorities found photos Oatman had taken the previous fall of children outside his residence doing things like riding skateboards, jumping rope and dropping stones in a soda bottle. None involved nudity or obscenity.
He was charged with 16 counts of intentionally photographing children without their parents' consent, and later pleaded no contest to eight so he could appeal on the constitutional issue. The judge sentenced Oatman last year to consecutive 18-month prison terms, the maximum, on each count.
In an opinion written by Reserve Judge Thomas Cane, and joined by judges Lisa Stark and Thomas Hruz, the court found that even sex offenders have free speech rights to take non-obscene, non-pornographic photographs of children in public places. Any law that aims to restrict speech based on its content must be narrowly drawn to protect a compelling state interest. The court found the law at issue failed both tests.
While protecting children is such an interest, the court said, the law doesn't accomplish that. In fact, it could actually encourage offenders to make personal contact with children, in order to ask who their parents are so the offender might ask permission to take the photos. "Further, children are not harmed by non-obscene, non-pornographic photographs taken in public places," the court said....
The court said it does not like the idea that some people might gain sexual gratification from ordinary photos of children, but that laws can't ban protected speech just because it might lead to crime. "First Amendment freedoms are most in danger when the government seeks to control thought or to justify its laws for that impermissible end," the decision reads, quoting a U.S. Supreme Court case. "The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought."
The full ruling in Wisconsin v. Oatman is available at this link, and the nature of the final ruling meant that the appeals court had no reason to consider or comment on the specific sentence that had been imposed on the defendant under this law. That said, I cannot help but wonder if the judges considering the appeal were influenced by the remarkable fact that the defendant had been sentence to more than a decade in prision(!) for simply taking pictures (presumably from inside his own home) of children playing outside in public.
Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Former peanut CEO (sort of) gets less than LWOP for salmonella outbreak
As reported in this Reuters article, high-profile federal white-collar sentencings yesterday culminated in a set of severe sentences for executives culpable in a harmful food safety crime. Here are the details:
The former owner of a peanut company in Georgia was sentenced to 28 years in prison on Monday for his role in a salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened hundreds, a rare instance of jail time in a food contamination case.
Stewart Parnell, 61, who once oversaw Peanut Corporation of America, and his brother, Michael Parnell, 56, who was a food broker on behalf of the company, were convicted on federal conspiracy charges in September 2014 for knowingly shipping salmonella-tainted peanuts to customers. Contamination at the company's plant in Blakely, Georgia, led to one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history and forced the company into liquidation.
U.S. District Judge Louis Sands gave Michael Parnell 20 years in prison. Mary Wilkerson, 41, a former quality control manager at the plant who was found guilty of obstruction, was sentenced to five years in prison. Stewart Parnell faced life in prison and his brother faced about 24 years.
Before the judge issued the sentences, Stewart Parnell said; “This has been a seven-year nightmare for me and my family. I’m truly, truly sorry for what’s happened.”
A man whose mother died from eating tainted peanut butter was among those who told a federal judge on Monday that the Parnells should receive stiff prison time. Jeff Almer, of Brainerd, Minnesota, said his mother, Shirley Almer, was among the nine people killed in the salmonella outbreak linked to the company in 2009. "My mother died a painful death from salmonella, and the look of horror on her face as she died shall always haunt me," Almer said during the hearing on Monday in Albany, Georgia. "I just hope they ship you all to jail," Almer said.
During the seven-week trial last year, prosecutors said the Parnell brothers covered up the presence of salmonella in the company's peanut products for years, even creating fake certificates showing the products were uncontaminated despite laboratory results showing otherwise. The Parnells have said they never knowingly endangered customers, and their supporters asked a judge on Monday to show mercy....
An official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testified at the trial that the company's peanut products sickened 714 people in 46 states, including 166 of whom were hospitalized.
Though not formally an LWOP sentence, the federal prison term here means the main defendant will have to live until well into his mid-80s to make it through his whole sentence even with time off for good behavior (and the brother will need to make it to his mid 70s). Thus, while I believe these are technically below-guideline sentences, they are still quite severe given the defendants' ages.
Prior related posts:
- Executive facing "unprecedented" LWOP sentence for food-poisoned peanut butter
- You be the federal judge: how long a prison term for peanut executives convicted of selling salmonella-tainted food
Monday, September 21, 2015
"Rich Offender, Poor Offender: Why It (Sometimes) Matters in Sentencing"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing paper by Mirko Bagaric recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Wealth confers choice and opportunity. Poverty is restrictive and often leads to frustration and resentment. Rich people who commit crime are arguably more blameworthy than the poor who engage in the same conduct because the capacity of the rich to do otherwise is greater. Yet, we cannot allow poverty to mitigate criminal punishment otherwise we potentially license or encourage people to commit crime.
These two conflicting considerations are the source of intractable tension in the criminal justice system. The second perspective has generally prevailed. Offenders from economically disadvantaged backgrounds normally do not receive a sentencing reduction based purely on that consideration. This article examines the soundness of this approach. It concludes that there is a non-reducible baseline standard of conduct that is expected of all individuals, no matter how poor. It is never tolerable to inflict serious bodily or sexual injury on another person. Deprived background should not mitigate such crimes.
A stronger argument can be made in favour of economic deprivation mitigating other forms of offences, such as drug and property crimes. While the key consideration regarding crime severity is the impact it has on victims (not the culpability of the offender), in relation to these offences the burden of poverty is the more compelling consideration. This should be reflected in a mathematical discount (in the order of 25 per cent) for impoverished non-violent and non-sexual offences. A related benefit of this discount is that it will shine a light on the strictures of poverty and thereby encourage the implementation of broader social interventions to eliminate the link between poverty and crime.
To this end, it is suggested that the biggest change that would reduce the link between crime and poverty is improving the education levels of all citizens. Whilst this article focuses on sentencing law and policy in the United States and Australia, its recommendations are applicable to all sentencing systems.