Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Notable new federal drug sentencing guideline reform data and discussion from US Sentencing Commission

I just received via e-mail a notable alert from the US Sentencing Commission concerningnotable new information and materials now available on the USSC's website.  Here is the text of the alert I received (along with relevant links):

Today, the U.S. Sentencing Commission released its first report on retroactive application of the 2014 drug guidelines amendment, which reduced the drug quantity table in the federal sentencing guidelines by two levels.  This report includes motions decided through the end of May 2015 for a reduced sentence under the new amendment.  Read the report.

For background information on why the Commission amended the drug guidelines, read the first of our new Policy Profile series, “Sensible Sentencing Reform: The 2014 Reduction of Drug Sentences.”

The Commission is also seeking public comment on proposed priorities for the upcoming amendment cycle.  Public comment is due on or before July 27, 2015.  More information

There is data and discussion in each of thse three new USSC documents that merit careful study and perhaps future substantive comment. For now, though, I am eager just to praise the Commission for the creation of the reader-friendly and astute "new Policy Profile series." I have long thought it a good idea for the USSC to say a lot more about matters of policy, but to do so in smaller forms than the traditional lengthy 300+ page reports to Congress. Thus, I consider this new Policy Profile series to be both a great idea and one that could pay lots of dividends for all policy-makers, researchers and advocates who are concerned about federal sentencing law and policy,

June 24, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Many bombing victims scheduled to speak at formal sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

This AP article, headlined "More than 30 victims to speak at Boston bomber's sentencing," provides a preview of a high-profile formal sentencing scheduled to take place today in Massachusetts federal court.  Here are excerpts:

More than 30 victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and their family members are expected to describe the attack's impact on their lives before a judge formally sentences bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death.

In May, a federal jury condemned Tsarnaev to die for bombing the 2013 marathon with his brother. Three people were killed and more than 260 were injured when the brothers detonated two pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line. Under the federal death penalty law, Judge George O'Toole Jr. is required to impose the jury's sentence. Tsarnaev's sentencing hearing is scheduled for Wednesday morning in U.S. District Court.

Among those expected to speak are Rebekah Gregory, a Texas woman who lost a leg in the bombings, and Liz Norden, the mother of two Massachusetts men who each lost a leg. Tsarnaev, 21, also will be given a chance to speak if he chooses.

June 24, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

DOJ indicating it will appeal Judge Glesson's remarkable federal expungement order

As reported in this prior post, last month US District Judge John Gleeson examined the collateral workplace consequences of an old federal fraud conviction in the course of ordering the (legally questionable?) remedy of expungement in Doe v. US, No. 14-MC-1412 (EDNY May 21, 2015) (available here).  Now, as reported in this Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Justice Department Sets Its Sights on Rare Expungement Order," it appears that the Second Circuit will have a chance to consider this matter. Here are the basics:

The Justice Department spearheads the federal government’s efforts to help people convicted of crimes return to society after paying their dues, but a case in Brooklyn is putting its views to the test. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York signaled Friday that it will appeal a rare order by a federal judge expunging the fraud conviction of a health-care aide and mother of four who said her efforts to hold down a job have been sabotaged by her criminal record.

In his May order, U.S. District Judge John Gleeson nodded to “a growing recognition that the adverse employment consequences of old convictions are excessive and counter-productive.” He cited a 2011 letter by then Attorney General Eric Holder pressing state attorneys general to reassess state laws that limit the job prospects of ex-offenders. That same year, Mr. Holder established a council of 20 government agencies whose goal is “to remove federal barriers to successful reentry, so that motivated individuals — who have served their time and paid their debts — are able to compete for a job, attain stable housing, support their children and their families, and contribute to their communities.”

“If the government is trying to look out for people in these situations, why take this case of all cases?” said Brooklyn lawyer Bernard H. Udell, who is representing the woman whose conviction Judge Gleeson expunged. A spokeswoman at the Justice Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn had no immediate comment.

In 2002, Judge Gleeson sentenced the woman, who is identified in court documents by the pseudonym Jane Doe, to five years of probation for feigning injury in a staged car crash and falsely claiming to have received medical services as part of a scheme to collect insurance money. She landed several jobs as a health-care aide since her conviction but lost them after her record came to light in background checks, according to her petition. Judge Gleeson cited several factors in support of his decision to expunge her record, including the 17 years that have elapsed since she committed a crime, the trouble she has had keeping jobs, her age (mid-50s) and the nonviolent nature of her crime.

The Brooklyn U.S. attorney’s office opposed the petition in Judge Gleeson’s court, saying in a January legal brief that employers in the health-care industry were entitled to know about her criminal past. The brief said expungement should be used only in extreme circumstances, citing cases involving illegal arrests and police misconduct.

Prior related post:

June 23, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Is the initiative process a wise way to move forward with criminal justice reform?

Those who know me well know that I have become, generally speaking, big fan of direct democracy and not really that much of a fan of representative democracy.   This affinity is driven in part  by the efficacy of direct democracy in driving forward the national marijuana reform movement, but it is driven more fundamentally by the reality that direct democracy gets the electorate talking about (and the media reporting on) substantive policies and public priorities.  In contrast, as we see now most every election cycle, representative democracy too often gets the electorate talking about (and the media reporting on) personal scandals and public personas.

Because I am a big fan of direct democracy, I was especially excited to see this recent Washington Post article headlined "ACLU growing political program, plans ballot initiatives."  Here are excerpts:

The American Civil Liberties Union, looking to increase its effectiveness, is launching a major political advocacy program. The group has raised or received commitments for $80 million to back up a 501(c)(4) and announced on Friday that veteran Democratic operative Karin Johanson has been hired as its first ever national political director.

Johanson, who was executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when the party took control of the House in 2006, will run the ACLU’s Washington, D.C. office and spearhead several ballot initiative campaigns in 2016, focused on criminal justice reform and banning discrimination against the LGBT community....

“It has become increasingly clear that we can’t rely upon litigation or old-style lobbying,” Romero said in an interview. “The gridlock in Washington is suffocating … Sitting down with legislators, walking through the pros and cons of a particular bill and trying to cajole them to do the right thing increasingly draws limited dividends. The place to light a fire under them is in their home district.”

The ACLU will soon pick three states with high incarceration rates and then sponsor ballot initiatives next year aiming to force sentencing reform.  Five states are being considered, but they’ll pick just three so that the group can go all-in and score some tangible victories.

Criminal justice is a hot issue right now, with backing from liberals, libertarians like the billionaire Koch brothers and fiscal conservatives. “This is not a reform effort focused on the Northeast liberal corridor,” said Romero.  “We’re going to the tough states, the Deep South.”

For various reasons, I am pleased to learn that the ACLU is looking to bring the arguments for criminal justice reform straight to the people through the initiative process. But I also know there are many people interested in criminal justice reform who have different views on the best means to reform ends, and I would be eager to hear in the comments any reasons why I should not be too excited about seeking criminal justice reform through direct democracy.

June 23, 2015 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Policing, Mass Imprisonment, and the Failure of American Lawyers"

In prior comments, someone spotlighted this notable recent commentary by Alec Karakatsanis appearing in the Harvard Law Review Forum under the title that serves as the title of this posts. Here are excerpts from the introduction and the final paragraph of this provocative piece:

The contemporary system of American policing and incarceration puts human beings in cages at rates unprecedented in American history and unparalleled in the modern world. Its current rate of incarceration is about five to ten times that of other comparably wealthy countries and five times its own steady historical average prior to 1980.  It is a considerable bureaucratic achievement to accomplish the transfer of thirteen million bodies each year from their homes and families and schools and communities into government boxes of concrete and metal.  It is also a failure of the legal profession....

The failure of lawyers is a tragedy in two parts.  First, there has been an intellectual failure of the profession to scrutinize the evidentiary and logical foundations of modern policing and mass incarceration.  Second, the profession has failed in everyday practice to ensure that the contemporary criminal legal system functions consistently with our rights and values....

Legal academics, judges, and lawyers of conscience must take up this two-pronged challenge: we must bring intellectual rigor to legal discourse and doctrine on these issues, and we must use the energy that animates our bodies to ensure that the legal system looks in practice as it appears in our scrolls and on our marble monuments.

June 23, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Interesting statement from Justice Sotomayor on Fifth Circuit approach to plain-error sentencing review

As noted in this post today (and this prior post from last week) about recent SCOTUS activity, sentencing fans like me eagerly awaiting big Supreme Court rulings in the Johnson Armed Career Criminal Act case and the Glossip lethal execution drug case have to keep waiting at least a few more days for a decision.  But, truly hard-core sentencing fans got a smidgen of unexpected love from Justice Sonia Sotomayor through this brief statement in Carlton v. US concerning how the Fifth Circuit applies plain-error review.  Here are excerpts which provide the context:

The District Court enhanced petitioner Roy Carlton’s sentence based on a factual inaccuracy introduced into the sentencing record by the Government.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit refused to review Carlton’s appellate challenge to the enhancement, relying on Circuit precedent holding that factual errors are never cognizable on plain-error review.  For the reasons that follow, I believe the Fifth Circuit’s precedent is misguided....

The doctrine of plain error follows from the recognition that a “rigid and undeviating judicially declared practice under which courts of review would invariably and under all circumstances decline to consider all questions which had not previously been specifically urged would be out of harmony with . . . the rules of fundamental justice.” United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 732 (1993) (internal quotation marks omitted). And in all the years since the doctrine arose, we have never suggested that plain-error review should apply differently depending on whether a mistake is characterized as one of fact or one of law.  To the contrary, “[w]e have emphasized that a per se approach to plain-error review is flawed.”  Puckett v. United States, 556 U.S. 129, 142 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).  The Fifth Circuit’s wooden rule that factual mistakes cannot constitute plain error runs counter to these teachings....

Given its inconsistency with the governing text and longstanding precedent, it is little wonder that no other court of appeals has adopted the per se rule outlined by the Fifth Circuit in Lopez....  All agree the District Court improperly relied on testimony Anderson never gave.  But in the Fifth Circuit — and only the Fifth Circuit — that mistake cannot be reviewed and possibly corrected.  As a result, Carlton may spend several additional months in jail simply because he was sentenced in Alexandria, Louisiana, instead of Alexandria, Virginia.

For all these reasons, I conclude that Lopez’s categorical rule is unjustified. Nevertheless, I reluctantly agree with the Court’s decision to deny certiorari in this case.  The Solicitor General informs us that the Fifth Circuit is at times inconsistent in its adherence to Lopez.  When that sort of internal division exists, the ordinary course of action is to allow the court of appeals the first opportunity to resolve the disagreement. I hope the Fifth Circuit will use that opportunity to rethink its approach to plain-error review.

June 22, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable new study on 56 failed capital cases in North Carolina over past 25 years

CDPL-REPORT_-smaller-image-e1434556853262As detailed in this local article, headlined "Report: NC prosecutors sometimes push for death penalty in flimsy cases," a notable new report about capital prosecutions in the Tar Heel State was released this morning. Here are the basics:

Fending off a capital murder charge can cost falsely accused defendants money, jobs, homes and their health, according to a report released by the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

The center studied 56 cases from 1989 to 2015 in which the death penalty was threatened as a potential punishment, but the charges were either dropped or the person charged was acquitted at trial. The results suggest that prosecutors sometimes use the threat of the state's most severe penalty when their evidence is the weakest, said Gerda Stein, a spokeswoman for the center. "They believe they have the right person," Stein said. "The problem is, they don't have enough evidence."

The center's report suggests the death penalty is used to bully defendants into accepting plea deals or to extract confessions from witnesses.

North Carolina has not executed a criminal defendant since 2006 as lawsuits over the method of execution and the now-repealed Racial Justice Act have kept the state from moving forward. During that time, there have been high-profile exonerations of death row inmates, including the recently pardoned Leon Brown and his half-brother, Henry McCollum.

Less well known are cases like that of Leslie Lincoln, who was accused of her mother's 2002 murder. She was implicated in part by faulty DNA evidence. Ultimately, she was found not guilty at trial, but she struggled with the aftermath of spending three years in jail and another two years on house arrest. She lost her job, savings and home and suffered from anxiety and depression after the acquittal, according to the report....

The center distributed embargoed copies of its report last week. One of those who reviewed a copy was former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, who says he does not oppose the death penalty but is troubled by its uneven application. "I think one of the points the report stresses is the leverage that comes with trying somebody and potentially pursuing the death penalty," Orr said. "It is sometimes the weakest cases, the ones where you don't have the strong evidence, that there seems to be an inclination to try to move forward with the death penalty."

The report doesn't suggest specific fixes to the issue. The center is one of a number of groups that has argued for the elimination of the death penalty altogether.

Orr said that, if the state is going to continue having capital punishment, it needs to do more to ensure a fair system. Both prosecutors and the defense attorneys for indigent defendants need better funding, he said, and he suggested the state ought to somehow centralize the decision on whether the death penalty is pursued, taking it out of the hands of prosecutors who might use the threat of capital punishment as tactical leverage. "That would make for a fairer, more even-handed, dispassionate decision-making process," he said.

The title of this new report is "On Trial for their Lives: The Hidden Costs of Wrongful Capital Prosecutions in North Carolina," and it can be accessed via this link.  That link also provides this summary of report's main findings about the 56 North Carolina cases it studied:

• The state spent nearly $2.4 million in defense costs alone to pursue these failed cases capitally.  Had the defendants been charged non-capitally, all that money could have been saved.  (This conservative figure does not take into account the additional prosecution and incarceration costs in capital cases.)

• Defendants who were wrongfully prosecuted spent an average of two years in jail before they were acquitted by juries or had their charges dismissed by prosecutors.

• The 56 defendants in the study spent a total of 112 years in jail, despite never being convicted of a crime.

• By the time they were cleared of wrongdoing, many defendants lost their homes, jobs, businesses, and savings accounts, and saw personal relationships destroyed.  They received no compensation after they were cleared of charges.

• Serious errors or misconduct played a role in many cases.  The 56 cases involved instances of witness coercion, hidden evidence, bungled investigations, the use of improper forensic evidence, and highly unreliable witnesses.

June 22, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

SCOTUS rules 5-4 against government in two criminal procedure cases

The Supreme Court, back in action this morning, issued two notable split decisions in favor of individuals asserting rights against local or state criminal justice powers.  Here is an abridged (slightly modified) account of the SCOTUSblog early coverage of these rulings (with links):

The opinion in Kingsley v. Hendrickson is here.

This case arises out of an incident in a Wisconsin jail. Kingsley was waiting for trial on a drug charge when he got into a dispute with jail officers, who handcuffed him, forcibly removed him from his cell, and later used a taser on him. Kingsley then filed a lawsuit, alleging that jail officials had used excessive force. The question before the Court was what standard of review should apply to an excessive force claim by a pretrial detainee.

The Court ruled in favor of Kingsley, holding that courts should apply an objective test – the same Fourth Amendment excessive force test that applies to people who have not been arrested.  Vote is 5-4.  Under Section 1983, a pretrial detainee must show only that the force purposely or knowingly used against him was objectively unreasonable to prevail on an excessive force claim.

Scalia dissents, joined by Chief and Thomas, and Alito dissents as well.

 

The opinion in Los Angeles v. Patel is here.

The question in this case was whether a Los Angeles ordinance that required hotel owners to keep registries of guests, and allowed officers to search them without any suspicion is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment.  The Court the ordinance facially unconstitutional. Statute is facially unconstitutional because it fails to provide motel owners with an opportunity for pre-compliance review.

Sotomayor is writing. Decision of the Ninth Circuit is affirmed.  This is a strong decision for Fourth Amendment lovers.

June 22, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Sunday, June 21, 2015

"Judicial Participation in Plea Bargaining: A Dispute Resolution Perspective"

The title of this post is the title of this significant new article by Rishi Batra recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:

There is a common perception that judges do not or should not play a role in the criminal plea bargaining discussions between prosecutors and defense counsel. However, in many state jurisdictions, judicial participation is allowed or even encouraged by statute or by case law. This Article briefly summarizes some of the issues with the plea bargaining process, including how structural issues with the way defense counsel are appointed and compensated, along with the power of prosecutors, makes good representation for defendants less likely.

By then performing a fifty-state survey of rules for judicial participation in plea bargaining, the Article explicates both advantages and disadvantages of judicial participation in the plea process. Most importantly, it makes five recommendations for how states can involve judges in the plea process to retain the advantages while minimizing the disadvantages of judicial participation: having a separate judge or magistrate judge manage the plea process, recording plea bargains for future review, ensuring judges take a facilitative role during the plea process, involving defendants in the process where possible, and holding plea bargains in an informal setting.

June 21, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Despite statutory repeal, capital defenders say they need to keep representing Nebraska condemned

Some of the challenging issues facing Nebraska lawyers in the aftermath of the state's legislative repeal of the death penalty are on display in this notable local article headlined "John Lotter's lawyers argue they must stay on case because death penalty issue isn't settled." Here are the details:

Legal arguments over Nebraska’s death penalty repeal have quickly emerged in a federal court case involving one of the state’s death row inmates.  Two Kansas City attorneys argued this week that John Lotter’s death sentence was negated by the Nebraska Legislature’s May 27 repeal of capital punishment.

But lawyers Rebecca Woodman and Carol Camp said their client remains under threat of execution while a referendum petition drive attempts to overturn the repeal law and Gov. Pete Ricketts pushes for the lethal injections of Lotter and the nine other men on death row.  For that reason, the attorneys asked to remain assigned to Lotter’s case.

“Although Mr. Lotter asserts that the U.S. and Nebraska Constitutions would bar his execution even if the governor and his group were able to repeal the repeal, it is clear the governor will keep attempting to execute him until the courts definitively say he may not. That moment has not yet arrived,” the attorneys stated in a court brief filed in U.S. District Court in Lincoln.

In response, Assistant Nebraska Attorney General James Smith argued that only the Nebraska Board of Pardons has the authority to commute a death sentence under the state’s Constitution. Smith contended lawmakers passed flawed legislation by including intent language that says the repeal should apply to the existing death row inmates. “If the act was an unconstitutional power grab by the Nebraska Legislature, Lotter’s final death sentence remains in effect,” Smith said in his brief....

Lotter, 44, has spent 19 years on death row for a New Year’s Eve 1993 triple homicide near Humboldt. One of the victims was targeted for being transgender, which inspired the film “Boys Don’t Cry.” Lotter lost his previous appeals before state and federal courts. That makes him and Carey Dean Moore — convicted of killing two Omaha cab drivers in 1979 — the top candidates for execution depending on what happens with the repeal law.

As of now, however, Nebraska lacks the means to carry out an execution. Two of the three drugs required in the state’s lethal injection protocol have expired, and federal officials have said they will block the state’s attempt to import at least one of the drugs.

Woodman and Camp, who work with the Death Penalty Litigation Clinic, pointed out that no other state has executed an inmate after repealing the death penalty. To do so “would represent the sort of random, arbitrary, purposeless extinction of human life that the Eighth Amendment forbids,” they said in their brief. The two have asked U.S. District Senior Judge Richard Kopf to allow them to continue to represent Lotter while the status of the death penalty remains uncertain. They indicated Lotter has been pursuing constitutional claims never before litigated that would invalidate his death sentence.

June 20, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Jury Sentencing and Juveniles: Eighth Amendment Limits and Sixth Amendment Rights"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting and important new article by Sarah French Russell recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Across the country, states are grappling with how to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Miller v. Alabama, which held that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment.  Following Miller, it appears a sentencer may impose life without parole on a juvenile homicide offender only in those rare instances in which the sentencer determines, after considering the mitigating qualities of youth, that the juvenile’s crime reflects “irreparable corruption.”  Courts are preparing to conduct resentencing hearings in states nationwide, and new cases where juveniles face the possibility of life in prison are entering the courts.

Yet courts and scholars have not addressed a fundamental question: Who is the sentencer? Can a judge decide that a particular juvenile should die in prison or does the Constitution give juveniles the right to require that a jury make that determination?  Courts and state legislatures responding to Miller have assumed that a judge can impose life without parole on a juvenile, as long as the judge has discretion to impose a less severe sentence.  But viewing Miller in light of the Supreme Court’s recent Sixth Amendment jury right jurisprudence raises questions about the role of the jury in these post-Miller sentencing hearings.

In particular, does an Eighth Amendment limit on a sentence operate in the same way as a statutory maximum sentence and set a ceiling that cannot be raised absent a jury finding? If so, a jury must find the facts beyond a reasonable doubt that expose a juvenile to life without parole. Understanding how the Court’s recent Sixth and Eighth Amendment cases interact has broad implications for how sentencing authority is allocated not only in serious juvenile cases but also in our justice system more widely.

June 20, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Blakely in Sentencing Courts, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, June 19, 2015

Split Eleventh Circuit panel discusses reasonableness review at great length

More than a full decade after the Supreme Court's Booker decision, federal circuit courts and judges continue to struggle with their post-Booker responsibility to review sentences for reasonableness.  That struggle is on full display today in the lengthy Eleventh Circuit panel ruling in US v. Rosales-Bruno, No. 12-15089 (11th Cir. June 19, 2015) (available here). The start of Chief Judge Carnes' opinion for the Court provide a crisp outline of the "sole issue" before the appellate court:

This is the second appeal to come before us involving a sentence imposed on Jesus Rosales-Bruno because of his conviction for illegally reentering the United States in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1326.  In the first appeal we vacated his original sentence after concluding the district court had erred in finding that his prior Florida conviction for false imprisonment qualified as a “crime of violence” conviction for enhancement purposes under United States Sentencing Guidelines § 2L1.2(b)(1)(A)(ii). United States v. Rosales-Bruno, 676 F.3d 1017, 1024 (11th Cir. 2012) (Rosales-Bruno I).  That error had increased Rosales-Bruno’s advisory sentencing guidelines range to 70 to 87 months, and the district court had sentenced him to 87 months imprisonment.

On remand, the district court recalculated Rosales-Bruno’s advisory guidelines range without the crime of violence enhancement, which lowered it to 21 to 27 months imprisonment.  After considering the sentencing factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), however, the court varied upward from the guidelines range, again imposing an 87-month prison term.  That sentence was 60 months above the high end of Rosales-Bruno’s revised guidelines range but 33 months below the statutory maximum of 120 months imprisonment.  The sole issue in this appeal is whether that sentence is substantively unreasonable.

Chief Judge Carnes thereafter has a 50-page explanation for why he thinks the sentence is substantively reasonable.  In turn, Judge Wilson need 40 additional pages to provide a contrary view on the reasonableness of this sentence.  The dissent starts this way:

For illegally reentering the United States, a crime with no statutory minimum and a base Guidelines range of 0–6 months, Rosales-Bruno was sentenced to more than 7 years in prison. In imposing this sentence, the district court more than tripled the upper end of the applicable Guidelines range.  The justifications supporting this major variance are insufficient, and this sentence — the product of a clear error in judgment — is “greater than necessary[] to comply with the purposes set forth” in 18 U.S.C. § 3553.  See United States v. Irey, 612 F.3d 1160, 1187, 1189 (11th Cir. 2010) (en banc). Therefore, I dissent.

June 19, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Should it be the state or feds (or both!?!) that capitally prosecute racist mass murderer Dylann Storm Roof?

The question in the title of this post is a question I have raised with some folks over at Crime and Consequences, and this new New York Times article reports that it is one that the Governor of South Carolina might now be thinking a lot about.  The NYTimes article is headlined "Governor Calls for Charleston Shooting Suspect to Face Death Penalty," and here are excerpts:

South Carolina’s governor on Friday called for the 21­ year­old man who is suspected of killing nine people in one of the South’s most historic black churches to face the death penalty.

“This is a state that is hurt by the fact that nine people innocently were killed,” Gov. Nikki R. Haley said, adding that the state “absolutely will want him to have the death penalty.”  The governor, who spoke on NBC’s “Today” show, described Wednesday’s shooting rampage as “an absolute hate crime.”

“This is the worst hate that I’ve seen — and that the country has seen — in a long time,” she said. “We will fight this, and we will fight this as hard as we can.”

Her comments came hours before the suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, a white man who returned to Charleston under heavy guard on Thursday night after his arrest in North Carolina, was expected to go before a judge on Friday afternoon for a bond hearing, where he will hear the charges against him. Mr. Roof, who friends said had a recent history of expressing racist opinions, is widely expected to be prosecuted for murder, an offense that can carry the death penalty in this state. Greg Mullen, the chief of police in Charleston, has called the shooting a hate crime, and Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said the Justice Department was investigating that possibility....

On Thursday, President Obama spoke of the shooting and lamented what he called the easy access to guns, an issue he has tried and failed to address with legislation. “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” Mr. Obama said. He added: “It is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of the avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it.”

In the interview on Friday, Ms. Haley, a strong proponent of gun rights, deflected a question about whether the shooting would change her position on the issue. “Anytime there is traumatic situation, people want something to blame. They always want something to go after,” she said. “There is one person to blame here. We are going to focus on that one person,” she added, referring to Mr. Roof....

In downtown Charleston, there was already talk of the long­term anxiety the shooting might stir. “The question that I have is, is it going to happen again?” said Jeremy Dye, a 35­-year-­old taxi driver and security guard from North Charleston who said he knew three people who were killed. “It’s always going to be fear. People in Charleston are going to have that fear now forever. It’s not going to wash away. They’re going to be worried about, ‘O.K., when’s the next church going to get hit?’ ”

Because I share Gov Haley's view that this is the worst hate crime that the country has seen in a long time, and because I am especially eager to figure out how best to recognize and respect the real fear that this incident produces "forever" for so many folks, I think I would answer the question in the title of this post with the answer BOTH.

For many reasons, I think it would send an especially potent and powerful message of condemnation for both South Carolina and the Federal Government to bring capital charges against Dylann Storm Roof. Though I am not sure at this early stage of the investigation if I would want both SC and the feds moving forward with a capital prosecution all the way through a trial at the same time, I am sure that this is a kind of crime comparable in various ways to the Oklahoma bombing that prompted various dual state and federal prosecutions of the perpetrators.  For me, the symbolic value and statement of having capital charges brought against Roof in both state and federal courts is worth seriously considering.

June 19, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22)

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Criminal law geek overload as SCOTUS clears most (but not most consequential) of its criminal docket

As the posts preceding this one reveals, the US Supreme Court this morning largely ruined my plans to spend much of the next 80 hours obssessing over one of my favorite summer sporting events.  They did so by handing down four "meaty" criminal law opinions, all of which appears to include an array of doctrinal and dicta nuances that likley will prove to be blogworthy in the days ahead.  I will collect here all the prior posts (which have links to the opinions) in order to help those keeping score to see that criminal defendants prevailed in two cases and lost in two cases:

From a way-too-quick assessment of these rulings, I sense that Clark is the biggest deal both as a matter of constitutional jurisprudence and as a matter of day-to-day criminal trial practice. But, because the Confrontation Clause has generally been deemed inapplicable in sentencing proceedings, hard-core sentencing fans might find a lot more of interest in the other rulings.

Also noteworthy, as the title of this post highlights, still outstanding from the Justices are the two cases I have been following most closely this term: Glossip concerning execution protocols and Johnson concerning the constitutionality and application of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act. I have long assumed and expect that we would not get a ruling in Glossip until the very end of the month, and I now am thinking there is a good chance we might get Johnson as early as next week.

June 18, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

SCOTUS unanimously rules for federal defendant on mens rea issue in McFadden CSA case

The US Supreme Court has just handed down its opinion in the Federal criminal case of McFadden v. US, No. 14-348 (S. Ct. June 18, 2015) (available here).  Justice Thomas wrote the opinion for the Court, which garnered no dissents but generated a short concurrence by the Chief Justice.  The Court's opinion begins this way:

The Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986 (Analogue Act) identifies a category of substances substantially similar to those listed on the federal controlled substance schedules, 21 U.S.C. § 802(32)(A), and then instructs courts to treat those analogues, if intended for human consumption, as controlled substances listed on schedule I for purposes of federal law, §813.  The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in turn makes it unlawful knowingly to manufacture, distribute, or possess with intent to distribute controlled substances. § 841(a)(1).  The question presented in this case concerns the knowledge necessary for conviction under § 841(a)(1) when the controlled substance at issue is in fact an analogue.

We hold that § 841(a)(1) requires the Government to establish that the defendant knew he was dealing with “a controlled substance.”  When the substance is an analogue, that knowledge requirement is met if the defendant knew that the substance was controlled under the CSA or the Analogue Act, even if he did not know its identity.  The knowledge requirement is also met if the defendant knew the specific features of the substance that make it a “‘controlled substance analogue.’” § 802(32)(A).  Because the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit approved a jury instruction that did not accurately convey this knowledge requirement, we vacate its judgment and remand for that court to determine whether the error was harmless.

June 18, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

SCOTUS rules 5-4 for state capital defendant in Brumfield v. Cain, and 5-4 against state capital defendant in Davis v. Ayala

The US Supreme Court has just handed down its opinion in the state capital case of Brumfield v. Cain, No. 13-1433 (S. Ct. June 18, 2015) (available here). Justice Sotomayor wrote the opinion for the Court, which divided 5-4 on the case.  The Court's opinion begins this way:

In Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), this Court recognized that the execution of the intellectually disabled contravenes the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  After Atkins was decided, petitioner, a Louisiana death-row inmate, requested an opportunity to prove he was intellectually disabled in state court. Without affording him an evidentiary hearing or granting him time or funding to secure expert evidence, the state court rejected petitioner’s claim. That decision, we hold, was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C. §2254(d)(2). Petitioner was therefore entitled to have his Atkins claim considered on the merits in federal court.

Justice Thomas authored a lengthy dissent which ends with a picture and starts this way:

Federal collateral review of state convictions interrupts the enforcement of state criminal laws and undermines the finality of state-court judgments. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) addresses that interference by constraining the ability of federal courts to grant relief to state prisoners. Today, the Court oversteps those limits in a decision that fails to respect the Louisiana state courts and our precedents.  I respectfully dissent.

------

Just a few minutes later, the US Supreme Court handed down its opinion in the state capital case of Davis v. Ayala, No. 13-1428 (S. Ct. June 18, 2015) (available here). Justice Alito wrote the opinion for the Court, which divided 5-4 on the case. The Court's opinion begins this way:

A quarter-century after a California jury convicted Hector Ayala of triple murder and sentenced him to death, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted Ayala’s application for a writ of habeas corpus and ordered the State to retry or release him. The Ninth Circuit’s decision was based on the procedure used by the trial judge in ruling on Ayala’s objections under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), to some of the prosecution’s peremptory challenges of prospective jurors. The trial judge allowed the prosecutor to explain the basis for those strikes outside the presence of the defense so as not to disclose trial strategy.  On direct appeal, the California Supreme Court found that if this procedure violated any federal constitutional right, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Ninth Circuit, however, held that the error was harmful.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision was based on the misapplication of basic rules regarding harmless error.  Assuming without deciding that a federal constitutional error occurred, the error was harmless under Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993), and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 28 U. S. C. §2254(d).

Justices Kennedy and Thomas wrote interesting off-topic concurrences, which I will discuss in a separate post. More on point is the chief dissent in Ayala authored by Justice Sotomayor, which starts this way:

At Hector Ayala’s trial, the prosecution exercised its peremptory strikes to dismiss all seven of the potential black and Hispanic jurors. In his federal habeas petition, Ayala challenged the state trial court’s failure to permit his attorneys to participate in hearings regarding the legitimacy of the prosecution’s alleged race-neutral reasons for its strikes. See Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 97–98 (1986). The Court assumes that defense counsel’s exclusion from these proceedings violated Ayala’s constitutional rights, but concludes that the Ninth Circuit erred in granting habeas relief because there is insufficient reason to believe that counsel could have convinced the trial court to reject the prosecution’s proffered reasons. I respectfully dissent. Given the strength of Ayala’s prima facie case and the comparative juror analysis his attorneys could have developed if given the opportunity to do so, little doubt exists that counsel’s exclusion from Ayala’s Batson hearings substantially influenced the outcome.

June 18, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

SCOTUS narrows reach of Confrontation Clause via Ohio v. Clark

The US Supreme Court has just handed down its opinion in the state criminal case of Ohio v. Clark, No. 13-1352 (S. Ct. June 18, 2015) (available here). Justice Alito wrote the opinion for the Court, which garnered no dissents but did prompt separate concurrences by Justices Scalia (joined by Justice Ginsburg) and Justice Thomas. The Court's opinion begins this way:

Darius Clark sent his girlfriend hundreds of miles away to engage in prostitution and agreed to care for her two young children while she was out of town.  A day later, teachers discovered red marks on her 3-year-old son, and the boy identified Clark as his abuser.  The question in this case is whether the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause prohibited prosecutors from introducing those statements when the child was not available to be crossexamined.  Because neither the child nor his teachers had the primary purpose of assisting in Clark’s prosecution, the child’s statements do not implicate the Confrontation Clause and therefore were admissible at trial.

Notably, Justice Scalia's concurrence reads a lot more like a dissent, as evidenced by this passage early in his opinion:

I write separately, however, to protest the Court’s shoveling of fresh dirt upon the Sixth Amendment right of confrontation so recently rescued from the grave in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004).  For several decades before that case, we had been allowing hearsay statements to be admitted against a criminal defendant if they bore “‘indicia of reliability.’”  Ohio v. Roberts, 448 U.S. 56, 66 (1980).  Prosecutors, past and present, love that flabby test.  Crawford sought to bring our application of the Confrontation Clause back to its original meaning, which was to exclude unconfronted statements made by witnesses — i.e., statements that were testimonial.  541 U.S., at 51. We defined testimony as a “‘solemn declaration or affirmation made for the purpose of establishing or proving some fact,’” ibid.—in the context of the Confrontation Clause, a fact “potentially relevant to later criminal prosecution,”  Davis v. Washington, 547 U.S. 813, 822 (2006).

June 18, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

New ACLU lawsuit assails public defender system in Idaho

This new AP piece, headlined "ACLU Sues Idaho in Push to Improve Public Defender System," reports on a notable new civil rights lawsuit in the Gem State. Here are the details:

A national civil liberties group has brought its fight to overhaul the criminal defense system for low-income defendants to Idaho with a lawsuit that says the state hasn't done enough to make sure poor people are being fairly represented.

The American Civil Liberties Union contends state officials have known for several years that overwhelming case loads, underfunded budgets and a patchwork system that varies county by county prevent defendants from receiving adequate legal representation guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Idaho officials, including the governor and attorney general, declined to comment Wednesday on a case that continues a national push for the ACLU....

The organization has brought similar lawsuits in several states recently, reaching settlements in New York and Washington after the U.S. Justice Department intervened on the ACLU's behalf and state officials agreed to sweeping reforms.

The Idaho case names four plaintiffs who say they've spent months in jail without speaking to their court-appointed attorneys or that their cases weren't properly reviewed, and the organization is seeking class-action status so the case will apply to all low-income defendants in the state.  The filing asks a state judge to order Idaho officials to implement a better system....

Lawmakers and a special Criminal Justice Commission have examined the issue, but the ACLU says meaningful changes haven't been made.  For their part, legislators created the Idaho Public Defense Commission last year.  Members have been asked to create standards, training programs and a data collection system and to keep lawmakers informed about any problems.  The ACLU says that's not enough. "Astoundingly, the State failed yet again in the recently concluded 2015 legislative session to fund or improve its public-defense system," ACLU-Idaho attorney Ritchie Eppink wrote in the lawsuit.

Members of the Public Defense Commission were named as defendants in the lawsuit, along with Republican Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and the state.  Ian Thompson, the commission's executive director, declined to comment on the case, though he said members will discuss it during a meeting Thursday.

A copy of the ACLU lawsuit can be accessed at this link via the ACLU website.

June 18, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Federal district judge declares unconstitutional Minnesota sex offender civil commitment program

As reported in this AP piece, today brought a big (but not entirely unexpected) federal court ruling concerning constitutional challenges to Minnesota's civil commitment program for sex offenders. Here are the basics:

A federal judge has ruled that Minnesota's sex offender treatment program is unconstitutional, but has deferred any immediate action to await further proceedings on a remedy.  U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank largely sided with the more than 700 residents who were civilly committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program after they completed their prison sentences.

Their lawyers argued during a nearly six-week bench trial in February and March that the program is unconstitutional because nobody has ever been fully discharged from it, even those thought to be at low risk of committing new crimes. The state says it has improved the program, including moving more patients through treatment and perhaps toward provisional release.

Frank is calling on Minnesota government's top leaders to personally appear in court to help come up with an alternative structure to a sex offender confinement program. Frank listed Gov. Mark Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk among those he wants to take part in a remedies phase that will start on Aug. 10. Frank says stakeholders must fashion a suitable remedy to avoid having the entire program be eliminated and resulting in the release of civilly committed offenders currently in secure facilities.

In Wednesday's ruling, the judge lays out more than a dozen conditions for a restructured program, including that less-restrictive alternatives be implemented and new evaluation and discharge procedures be developed. Throughout his 76-page ruling, Frank says elected officials have been reluctant to modify the indefinite confinement of more than 700 sex offenders out of political fear. But Frank says "politics or political pressures cannot trump the fundamental rights" of those in the program. He stressed that the U.S. Constitution "protects individual rights even when they are unpopular."

Gov. Mark Dayton says there won't be immediate changes to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in response to a federal judge's ruling that it's unconstitutional. In a statement that was released Dayton said, "We will work with the Attorney General to defend Minnesota's law."

Dan Gustafson, the attorney who brought the class action suit on behalf of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program clients said he is not surprised by the judge's ruling. He said that he advised his clients to be patient because the remedies will take time to create and not all of the clients will be getting out.

The full 76-page ruling, in a case that still clearly is nowhere close to finished, is now available at this link.

June 17, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, June 15, 2015

Perspectives on Clemency Project 2014 from federal prisoners and an advocate for them

Regular readers know I have given lots of space recently to coverage and criticism of federal clemency efforts.  I am pleased to continue now with a guest post via Beth Curtis, a prisoner advocate who runs the website Life for Pot.  Beth sent this extended commentary my way under the heading "Inspired by the Dialogue between Margaret Colgate Love here and Mark Osler here on Douglas Berman’s Blog Sentencing Law and Policy":

At the launch of Clemency Project 2014 [CP-14], Craig Cesal, a non-violent marijuana offender on the Life for Pot site and his cell mate Samuel Edmonson a non-violent cocaine offender were both talking about and working on petitions for commutation.  Both Craig and Samuel had sentences of life without parole and had nothing to lose.

The two cell mates had a discussion about whether or not they should file their own petitions just in case there were going to be commutations before attorneys from The Clemency Project 2014 could prepare one for them.  Craig argued that the project had said there was no reason for filing on your own, as the criteria was different and it would probably have to be done again.  Samuel on the other hand decided that he should be sure he had a petition in the Pardon Attorney’s office and in February of 2014, he filed a brief petition for commutation that he did himself.

Very early in the process both of these offenders were assigned pro bono attorneys from the same law firm.  Samuel and Craig had initial contacts with their pro bono attorneys, but after that contact they were not contacted again and did not know if any work was being done.  

In March of 2015 Samuel received a commutation for his life sentence from President Barack Obama based on the petition he filed himself.

We were interested in this because there were only three life for pot inmates that we knew of who had been assigned pro bono attorneys and they only had initial contacts.  We contacted inmates and suggested that they begin preparing their own Clemency Petitions and file them, we don’t know if CP-14 will be able to overcome the cumbersome procedure.

In March of 2015 Larry Duke, a 68 year old non-violent marijuana offender with a sentence of life without parole was released.  Larry’s immediate release was pursuant to 18 USC 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  The “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for the release was Larry’s status as an elderly inmate.  Although Larry is over 65 he is also the healthiest of those on the Life for Pot site.  Larry had a contact from a pro bono attorney through Clemency Project 2014.  We called his attorney who did not know he had been released.

We started getting questions about the process for Reduction in Sentence [RIS] from non-violent marijuana offenders.  They wanted to know if they should file for sentencing relief even though they had filled out a survey to request an attorney through Clemency Project 2014.

These are not legal questions, but questions about procedure and we sought answers from an attorney with CP–14.  It was their considered opinion that the elder inmates should not file for RIS until CP–14 had completed the process as clemency might be held up until the (CR/RIS) was resolved.

Inmates found that BOP facilities were not aware of the elderly, over the age of 65, criteria for applying for RIS.  This remedy has seldom been used and “extraordinary and compelling reasons” were interpreted by the BOP as being almost lifeless chained to a hospital bed.

How much hope should we have for this process?  Was Larry Duke’s release singular, or will this be the beginning of an accelerated process?  We would like to know.

The hope and promise of Clemency Project 2014 is like a breath of air for these nonviolent inmates who will be behind bars till they die if no one exercises compassion, mercy and justice.  We’re listening carefully to the dialogue between Mark Osler and Margaret Love about the hope and promise for relief.

We are in the 18th month since the launch of the project and yet only two inmates have been released through this apparently clogged tunnel to freedom.  Much has been written in support of clemency and its use to address serious facility overcrowding and sentencing disparity.  Information about progress is scant and prisoners, their families and advocates worry about the progress and the will of the Administration.

Lately these public discussions by well-known clemency advocates pondering the most effective way to deal with the over incarceration gives us hope.  Margaret Colgate Love and Mark Osler’s point counter point about it on the blog Sentencing Law and Policy by Douglas Berman gave us insight. I believe these discussions are helpful but not a substitute for more transparency and concrete information given to the inmates, their families and advocates about procedure and progress.  We need to respect these vulnerable non-violent citizens.

It would be an insensitive travesty if this program that was announced with such fanfare and gave such hope to thousands of inmates, their family and friends and advocacy groups did not fulfill the promise of compassion and mercy.  These non-violent incarcerated people are accustomed to broken promises, but this one can be easily fulfilled by a bold administration with the courage of their stated convictions.  For years, nonviolent inmate advocates have felt that bi-partisan support would be the key to this realignment of positions and lead to fiscal responsibility and compassion.  Bipartisan support has arrived and we have the promise, it just needs to be fulfilled.

Some prior related posts:

June 15, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9)

SCOTUS grants cert on a federal prisoner (re)litigation case

The Supreme Court started the week by granting review in two cases, one of which concerns prisoner rights and restrictions.  The case is Bruce v. Samuels, and this SCOTUSblog page provides this account of the question presented:

Whether, when a prisoner files more than one case or appeal in the federal courts in forma pauperis, the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b)(2), caps the monthly exaction of filing fees at 20% of the prisoner's monthly income regardless of the number of cases or appeals for which he owes filing fees.

June 15, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Citing much research and data, Judge Posner rails against "the problem of the elderly prisoner"

The Seventh Circuit this past week issued an otherwise routine affirmance of a drug conviction in US v. Presley, No. 14-2704 (7th Cir. June 11, 2015) (available here), the opinion end up not at all routine because of Judge Posner's lengthy concluding (dicta?) about problems with exceedingly long federal sentences and the elderly prisoners these sentences create.  I would urge all federal sentencing fans to read Judge Posner's work in Presley in full, and these passages help highlight why (even with lots of Judge Posner's great cites and data left out):

The only questionable feature of the judgment is the length of the sentence — almost 37 years, though it is within the applicable guidelines range because of Presley’s very lengthy criminal history. Presley was 34 years old when sentenced... [and if he] earns the maximum possible good-time credit he’ll be almost 64 years old when released. If he earns no good time he’ll be almost 69.  And after release he’ll undergo five years of supervised release, which like parole is a form of custody because it imposes significant restrictions on the supervisee....

The judge pointed out that Presley is a career offender, that he began his criminal career when he was 16, that he was a large-scale heroin dealer, and that he had committed disciplinary violations in previous incarcerations.  What the judge failed to consider was the appropriateness of incarcerating Presley for so long that he would be elderly when released.  Criminals, especially ones engaged in dangerous activities such as heroin dealing, tend to have what economists call a “high discount rate” — that is, they weight future consequences less heavily than a normal, sensible, law-abiding person would....

The sentencing judge in this case ... gave no reason to think that imposing a 37-year sentence on Presley would have a greater deterrent effect on current or prospective heroin dealers than a 20-year or perhaps even a 10-year sentence, or that incapacitating him into his sixties is necessary to prevent his resuming his criminal activities at that advanced age.  Sentencing judges need to consider the phenomenon of aging out of risky occupations.  Violent crime, which can include trafficking in heroin, is generally a young man’s game.  Elderly people tend to be cautious, often indeed timid, and averse to physical danger.  Violent crime is far less common among persons over 40, let alone over 60, than among younger persons....

There needs finally to be considered the cost of imprisonment to the government, which is not trivial.  The U.S. prison population is enormous by world standards — about 1 percent of the nation’s entire population — and prisons are costly to operate because of their building materials (steel especially is very expensive) and large staffs.  If the deterrent or incapacitative effect on criminal propensities fades sharply with time, the expenses incurred in the incarceration of elderly persons may be a social waste....

We are not suggesting that sentencing judges (or counsel, or the probation service) should conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine how long a prison sentence to give. But the considerations that we’ve listed should be part of the knowledge base that judges, lawyers, and probation officers consult in deciding on the length of sentences to recommend or impose.  There is no indication that these considerations received any attention in this case.  We do not criticize the district judge and the lawyers and probation officers for the oversight; recognition of the downside of long sentences is recent and is just beginning to dawn on the correctional authorities and criminal lawyers.  Neither the Justice Department nor the defendant’s lawyer (or the probation service) evinced awareness in this case of the problem of the elderly prison inmate....

There is much that federal sentencing judges are required to consider in deciding on a sentence to impose — maybe too much: the guidelines, the statutory sentencing factors, the statutory and regulatory provisions relating to conditions of supervised release, presentence reports, briefs and arguments of counsel, statements by defendants and others at sentencing hearings.  But in thinking about the optimal sentence in relation to the problem of the elderly prisoner, probably the judge’s primary focus should be on the traditional triad of sentencing considerations: incapacitation, which prevents the defendant from committing crimes (at least crimes against persons other than prison personnel and other prisoners) until he is released, general deterrence (the effect of the sentence in deterring other persons from committing crimes), and specific deterrence (its effect in deterring the defendant from committing crimes after he’s released).  A sentence long enough to keep the defendant in prison until he enters the age range at which the type of criminal activity in which he has engaged is rare should achieve the aims of incapacitation and specific deterrence, while lengthening the sentence is unlikely to increase general deterrence significantly if the persons engaged in the criminal activity for which the defendant is being sentenced have a high discount rate; for beyond a point reached by a not very long sentence, such persons tend not to react to increases in sentence length by abandoning their criminal careers.

June 13, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (8)

How many hundreds (or thousands?) of ACCA prisoners could be impacted by a big ruling in Johnson?

The Supreme Court Term is winding down, and we might get a ruling as early as this coming wee in the (re)argued case Johnson v. US concerning the (un)constitutionality of the Armed Career Criminal Act.  As federal sentencing fans should know, there seem to be a real chance that Justice Scalia will convince enough of his colleagues to strike down ACCA as unconstitutionally vague.

Helpfully, Leah Litman has already authored an article, "Residual Impact: Resentencing Implications of Johnson v. United States’ Potential Ruling on ACCA’s Constitutionality", about some of the legal issues that might follow from a big constitutional ruling in Johnson.  But the question in the title of this post is focused on the practical question of just how many current federal prisoners serving ACCA sentences of 15 or more years could seek to benefit from ACCA.  

This helpful new "Quick Facts" report from the US Sentencing Commission indicates that in Fiscal Year 2014 roughly 10% of 5,500 federal firearm offenders were sentenced under ACCA to an average sentence of 188 months in prison.  Assuming that these numbers are typical for firearm sentencing in each of the last dozen years, we can then extrapolate to estimate that there may be as many as 7,000 current federal prisoners serving ACCA sentencing term.

Critically, though, even if the Supreme Court were to declare ACCA's residual clause unconstitutionally vague, that ruling alone would not necessarily impact all (or perhaps even most) of current ACCA prisoners.  Sentencing judges in many (maybe most) cases sentenced under ACCA likely did not rely on the residual clause of the statute to find enough triggering prior offenses to require the application of the severe ACCA sentence.  Among the uncertainties which could flow from a big ACCA ruling in Johnson  is whether other parts of the ACCA statute and prior convictions based on other parts of the ACCA statute are still valid if one ACCA clause is struck down as unconstitutionally vague.

Some related prior posts:

June 13, 2015 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, June 12, 2015

"'Frightening and High': The Frightening Sloppiness of the High Court's Sex Crime Statistics"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Ira Mark Ellman and Tara Ellman recently posted on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This brief essay reveals that the sources relied upon by the Supreme Court in Smith v. Doe, a heavily cited constitutional decision on sex offender registries, in fact provide no support at all for the facts about sex offender re-offense rates that the Court treats as central to its constitutional conclusions. This misreading of the social science was abetted in part by the Solicitor General’s misrepresentations in the amicus brief it filed in this case.

The false “facts” stated in the opinion have since been relied upon repeatedly by other courts in their own constitutional decisions, thus infecting an entire field of law as well as policy making by legislative bodies.  Recent decisions by the Pennsylvania and California supreme courts establish principles that would support major judicial reforms of sex offender registries, if they were applied to the actual facts.

June 12, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Should bail reform be a key component of sentencing reform efforts?

Ever the sentencing obsessive, I tend to not focus too much attention on various aspects of criminal procedure that impact case processing before a defendant is formally convicted.  But this new New York Times article, headlined "When Bail Is Out of Defendant’s Reach, Other Costs Mount," provides a useful reminder of the significant role that bail prolicies and procedures have on all other aspects of criminal case processing.  Here is the start of the lengthy piece, with one particularly important line highlighted:

Dominick Torrence, who has lived in this city all his life, has a long rap sheet for dealing drugs but no history of violence.  So when he was charged with disorderly conduct and rioting on April 28, a night of unrest after Freddie Gray was fatally injured in police custody, he was shocked to learn the amount he would need to make bail: $250,000, the same amount as two of the officers facing charges over Mr. Gray’s death.

Although a bail bondsman would charge only a fraction of that, normally 10 percent, for many defendants $25,000 is as impossible a sum as $250,000.  “That’s something you get for murder or attempted murder,” Mr. Torrence, 29, said from Baltimore Central Booking. “You’re telling me I have to take food out of my kid’s mouth so I can get out of jail.”

He spent a month in jail on charges that would later be dropped.  Defense lawyers, scholars and even some judges say the high bail amounts set for some Baltimore protesters highlight a much broader problem with the nation’s money­based bail system.  They say that system routinely punishes poor defendants before they get their day in court, often keeping them incarcerated for longer than if they had been convicted right away.  “It sets up a system where first there’s the punishment, and then there’s the opportunity to go to court for trial,” said Paul DeWolfe, the Maryland state public defender.

Though money bail is firmly entrenched in the vast majority of jurisdictions, the practice is coming under new scrutiny in the face of recent research that questions its effectiveness, rising concerns about racial and income disparities in local courts, and a bipartisan effort to reduce the reliance on incarceration nationwide.

Colorado and New Jersey recently voted to revamp their bail systems, while in New Mexico last November, the State Supreme Court struck down a high bail it said had been set for the sole purpose of detaining the defendant. This year, the Department of Justice weighed in on a civil rights lawsuit challenging bail amounts based on solely on the charge, calling them unconstitutional. In several states, including Connecticut, New York and Arizona, chief justices or politicians are calling for overhauls of the bail system.

The money bail system is supposed to curb the risk of flight by requiring defendants to post bond in exchange for freedom before trial. But critics say the system allows defendants with money to go free even if they are dangerous, while keeping low-­risk poor people in jail unnecessarily and at great cost to taxpayers.

For those who cannot afford to post bail, even a short stay in jail can quickly unravel lives and families.  Criminal defendants are overwhelmingly poor, many living paycheck to paycheck, and detention can cause job losses and evictions.  Parents can lose custody of their children and may have a difficult time regaining it, even when cases are ultimately dropped.  And people in jail who are not guilty routinely accept plea deals simply to gain their freedom, leaving them with permanent criminal records.

The United States leads the world in the number of pretrial detainees, according to a report by the National Institute of Corrections, an agency of the Department of Justice.  An estimated half a million people are in the country’s jails on any given day because they cannot make bail.  And even bail amounts much lower than those routinely seen in Baltimore can be prohibitive.

The sentence I have emphasized above surely correct based on anecdotal accounts from defendants and defense attorneys, but I would be especially interested to know if any serious and rigorous empirical work has been done to assess just how many non-guilty defendants (and/or defendants who could raise reasonable defenses at a trial) may take plea deals because they could not make bail and because a public defender tells the defendant they would necessarily serve a lot longer while awaiting trial AND face an even more sentence if they end up convicted after a trial. In turn, especially because even low-level criminal history can lead to significant sentencing enhancements in any future case, these bail issues and consequences may ripple through modern sentencing systems in a number of ways.

June 10, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

You be the federal defense attorney: would you urge Dennis Hastert to cut a plea deal?

I often highlight and review high-profile cases by urging readers to place themselves in the shoes of a judge facing a tough sentencing decision or a prosecutor having to recommend a specific sentence.  But, as the title of this post connotes, now I am urging folks to think about how the attorneys for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert ought to approach (sentencing?) discussions with their client and their adversaries.  This lengthy Politico account of the Hastert charges and proceedings by Josh Gerstein provides all the needed background and includes these excerpts: 

After more than a week in seclusion, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert pleaded not guilty Tuesday to two criminal charges that he violated federal banking law and lied to the FBI as they investigated his alleged agreement to pay $3.5 million in hush money to cover up a past transgression.

Hastert, who became the longest-serving Republican speaker before the GOP lost the House in 2006, was released after entering the plea in front of U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin at an afternoon hearing which raised questions about whether Durkin will continue or the case will be reassigned to another judge.

Hastert, 73, looked much as he did during the height of his power, slightly stooped and with a shock of gray hair as he trudged into the packed courtroom clad in a dark pinstripe suit and blue tie. He stood in front of the judge’s bench throughout the roughly 15-minute hearing, softly answering the judge’s questions — usually with a “Yes, sir.”

Hastert’s lead defense attorney, Tom Green, spoke for the former speaker when it came time to offer a plea. “The defendant enters a plea of not guilty to both counts of the indictment, your honor,” Green said....

At Tuesday’s hearing, the defense waived a formal reading of the indictment, which alleges Hastert agreed to pay $3.5 million to an unnamed individual and forked over $1.7 million of that before the charges were filed. Nearly $1 million of that was withdrawn from the former speaker’s bank accounts in increments of $10,000 after bankers warned him that larger donations would trigger reports to the authorities, the indictment claims.

Prosecutors said little during the session, but when the judge asked for details of the potential penalties, Block noted Hastert could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each of the two felony counts. However, judges usually impose sentences in accordance with federal guidelines that call for more lenient punishment for offenders with no serious criminal record.

A plea deal, if there were to be one, could also reduce Hastert’s sentence. Many criminal defense lawyers believe such a deal is probable because a jury is not likely to look favorably on a defendant trying to cover up alleged sexual abuse of a student.

One of the charges brought against Hastert — structuring cash transactions to avoid federal reporting requirements — is unpopular among defense lawyers and libertarians because it can render routine cash banking transactions in increments of just under $10,000 illegal even if the reason for the cash payments or withdrawals is lawful. Critics contend that prosecutors use the structuring law to bring charges or force guilty pleas from defendants when the government lacks proof to make a case for drug trafficking or tax evasion. Some judges have reacted skeptically when the feds have brought cases in which there is no charge that the underlying conduct was illegal.

The nature of Hastert’s reported relationship with the acquaintance who allegedly received the hush money is unclear, but experts say the statute of limitations in Illinois for a criminal prosecution on sexual abuse from the 1970s expired long ago.

Hastert, who as speaker was once second in line to the presidency, resigned his House seat in 2007 after he lost the speaker’s post due to the Democrats’ victory in 2006. He is the highest-ranking current or former federal official to face criminal prosecution since Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 and pleaded guilty to a felony tax evasion charge.

June 9, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Michigan teen, guilty of misdemeanor after encounter with girl claiming to be 17, facing extreme sex offender restrictions

DownloadThis lengthy local story, headlined "'Old-fashioned scarlet letter': Elkhart 19-year-old fights sex offender status after encounter with Michigan teen," reviews a notable case highlighting problems with overly broad sex offender registry laws. The piece is subheadlined "During his five years of probation, he can’t have a smart phone or any other device that connects to the Internet, and he can’t live anywhere with Internet access," and here are excerpts:

As Zach Anderson sits in the Berrien County Jail in St. Joseph, Mich., his parents worry. And plead. And fight.

The young man from Elkhart, 19, pleaded guilty in Berrien County, Mich., Trial Court in March to a misdemeanor count of criminal sexual conduct for having sex — consensual sex — on Dec. 19, 2014, with a Niles, Mich., teen. She said she was 17, and met him in person after a whirlwind courtship in cyberspace that started with a meeting via the social app Hot or Not.

It turns out she was only 14, though, two years under the age of consent in Michigan. And now, Anderson finds himself sitting out a 90-day jail sentence, with another five years probation and, of particular concern to his parents, 25 years on Michigan’s sex offender registry. Worse yet, Les and Amanda Anderson, who run a small Elkhart media and printing company, fear their son could face a lifetime on Indiana’s sex offender registry on returning to the Elkhart area after his jail sentence is up.

“Here’s the thing: This mistake should not haunt him the rest of his life,” Les Anderson says from the family home in east Elkhart. That’s where his son — a 2014 Concord High School grad and Ivy Tech Community College student until his jailing — lived before Judge Dennis Wiley handed down the sentence on April 27.

In light of Zach Anderson’s age and clean criminal record, Wiley could have offered him leniency under Michigan’s Holmes Youthful Training Act, as his lawyer sought in sentencing. The Niles girl and her mom — whom the Elkhart Truth won’t name because the teen is a victim — even asked for leniency, asked that the case be dropped altogether.

“What do I say? I feel that nothing should happen to Zach,” the girl said at the first of his two sentencing hearings April 13, accompanied by her mother. “I, I mean I, I don’t know. I just ... if you feel like something should, I feel like the lowest thing possible.”

Her mom followed her daughter at the hearing. “I don’t want him to be a sex offender because he really is not and I know that there’s an age difference and I realize that (name deleted) was inappropriate that night, we didn’t know,” the mother said. She continued: “I’m very sorry and I hope you’ll really consider the fact of just dropping the case. I can’t say anything more than that. I hope you really will for all of our families.”

Wiley didn’t drop the case and ultimately denied Zach Anderson HYTA status, told him he’s “darn lucky” he got the deal he did. HYTA, geared to first-time offenders ages 17 to 21, allows eligible participants to expunge criminal convictions on complying with sentencing conditions, thus avoiding the stigma of a criminal record as they enter their adult years.

The criminal sexual conduct conviction and having to put his name on the list of sex offenders could have dramatic and far-reaching implications for Anderson, his dad says. Lost job and educational opportunities. Social stigmatization. Discrimination. Accordingly, the Andersons will fight the sentencing in court. They plan to argue for HYTA status based on what they and their backers believe to be discrepancies in the sentencing process.

“That is our goal: to get him off the list and be able to function as a normal person in society, be able to live his life like any other person. Because at the end of the day, this is the old-fashioned scarlet letter,” Les Anderson says. He went on: “My son, he’s not a danger to anybody. He’s not dangerous to society. … He’s not going to hurt a little girl. That’s not going to happen.” Even under HYTA guidelines, Zach Anderson would face punishment and repercussions. “It’s not a cake walk. There’s still classes and counseling and restrictions that go along with that. ... That is just much more reasonable than the extreme that he got,” says Amanda Anderson....

Per Hot or Not rules, those ages 13 to 17 are kept separate from users 18 and older. However, in creating a Hot or Not account, the 14-year-old Niles girl identified herself as 18 or over, John Gardiner, Zach Anderson’s first attorney, said in sentencing. After connecting on Hot or Not, the two texted back and forth and, along the way, the girl told Zach Anderson she was 17. He asked her for pictures “of intimate body parts,” Jerry Vigansky, an assistant Berrien County prosecutor, said at sentencing.

Two days after the initial contact, on Dec. 19, they met, according to the girl’s account to the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department responding officer, or R/O, who interviewed her. Authorities got involved, ultimately resulting in the criminal charges, after the girl’s mother called for help the evening of Dec. 19, wondering where her daughter was as she met with Zach Anderson. She worried the girl would miss a dose of medicine....

Call their social app-enabled rendezvous a cautionary tale of the times, one of the consequences of the high-tech, always-connected, Internet-everywhere age we live in. That’s how Wiley, the judge, seemed to view it, as did Vigansky, the prosecuting attorney, and even Gardiner, Zach Anderson’s original lawyer....

Vigansky said there had been “a little rash” of encounters in Berrien County of late like the one between Zach Anderson and the 14-year-old girl. There had been two of them, anyway. He took a dim view, sarcastically alluding to “this great website called Hot or Not.”

“You went online, to use a fisherman’s expression, trolling for women, to meet and have sex with,” scolded Wiley. “That seems to be part of our culture now. Meet, hook up, have sex, sayonara. Totally inappropriate behavior. There is no excuse for this.”...

Per Wiley’s sentence, Zach Anderson faces a long list of restrictions during the five years of probation. He can’t have a computer, except for schooling. Can’t have a smart phone or any other device that connects to the Internet. Can’t live anywhere with Internet access. Can’t have an account with Facebook or any other online social network.

He can’t have contact with anyone 17 or younger, his siblings excepted. Can’t live within 1,000 feet of a school. He faces a daily 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. home curfew. He’s to continue his studies, in consultation with his field agent, but can’t take any computer or computer science classes, which had been the planned focus of his Ivy Tech education. “This is what got him in trouble in the first place,” the judge said in sentencing.

To Les Anderson, the restrictions are extreme, the requirement to get on the sexual offender registry unnecessary. “Instead of trying to rehabilitate people, they set them up to fail because there are so many restrictions on them,” he said. That’s why he, his wife and the rest of the family are fighting. They’ve hired Grabel to investigate the legal recourses potentially at Zach Anderson’s disposal, especially to ease the registry requirement. They’ve created a Facebook page, “Justice 4 Zach Anderson, Elkhart.” They seek donations to help offset legal and other costs, $30,900 and counting. They’re selling yellow “Justice 4 Zach” T-shirts.

“Anybody that’s got common sense looks at this and they’re just blown away,” says Les Anderson. “It comes back to the punishment does not fit the crime. Regardless of how you feel about this, the punishment is way too harsh.”

June 9, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (13)

Monday, June 08, 2015

Can any significant federal prison sentence truly be "reasonable" for any of the Kettle Falls Five marijuana defendants?

Download (2)The question in the title of this post is a serious question I have in light of the remarkable federal marijuana prosecution that reaches sentencing in Washington state later this week.  The case involves the so-called "Kettle Falls Five," a group of medical marijuana patients subject (somewhat mysteriously) to aggressive federal criminal prosecution.  Regular readers may recall prior posts about the case; this new lengthy Jacob Sullum Forbes piece, headlined "In A State Where Marijuana Is Legal, Three Patients Await Sentencing For Growing Their Own Medicine," provides this review and update:

During their trial at the federal courthouse in Spokane last March, Rhonda Firestack-Harvey and her two fellow defendants—her son, Rolland Gregg, and his wife, Michelle Gregg—were not allowed to explain why they were openly growing marijuana on a plot in rural northeastern Washington marked by a big green cross that was visible from the air. According to a pretrial ruling, it was irrelevant that they were using marijuana for medical purposes, as permitted by state law, since federal law recognizes no legitimate use for the plant. But now that Firestack-Harvey and the Greggs have been convicted, they are free to talk about their motivation, and it might even make a difference when they are sentenced next Thursday.

Federal drug agents raided the marijuana garden, which was located outside Firestack-Harvey’s home near Kettle Falls, in 2012. In addition to the three defendants who are scheduled to be sentenced next week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington charged Firestack-Harvey’s husband, Larry Harvey, and a family friend, Jason Zucker. Dubbed the Kettle Falls Five, all had doctor’s letters recommending marijuana for treatment of various conditions, including gout, anorexia, rheumatoid arthritis, degenerative disc disease, and chronic pain from a broken back. Last February prosecutors dropped the charges against Harvey because he has terminal cancer. Zucker, who had a prior marijuana conviction, pleaded guilty just before the trial and agreed to testify against the other defendants in exchange for a 16-month sentence, which was much shorter than the 15-year term he could have received in light of his criminal history....

In the end, after hearing testimony for five days and deliberating for one, the jurors acquitted the defendants of almost all the charges against them, which could have sent them to prison for 10 years or more. “They all saw what was going on,” Telfeyan says. “They understood what the facts were, and they came back with a verdict exactly consistent with what actually happened, which was just a family growing medical marijuana for their own personal use.”

The jury rejected allegations that the defendants distributed marijuana and conspired to do so, that they grew more than 100 plants (the cutoff for a five-year mandatory minimum) over the course of two years, that they used firearms (the Harveys’ hunting guns) in connection with a drug crime (another five-year mandatory minimum), and that Firestack-Harvey maintained a place (i.e., the home she shared with her husband) for the purpose of manufacturing and distributing marijuana. The one remaining charge — cultivation of more than 50 but fewer than 100 plants — does not carry a mandatory minimum penalty, which gives Rice broad discretion when he sentences Firestack-Harvey and the Greggs next Thursday. He can even consider the reason they were growing marijuana.

“But for state-sanctioned medical prescriptions authorizing each member of the family to grow 15 marijuana plants, this family would not be before the Court today,” the defense says in a sentencing memo filed last week [available here]. “Due to the exemplary contributions each family member has made to this society, their lack of criminal records, and the unique role state-sanctioned medical authorizations played in this case, Defendants respectfully seek a probationary sentence with no incarceration.”

The federal probation office recommended sentences of 15 to 21 months, while the prosecution is seeking 41 to 51 months [gov sentencing memo here], based mainly on allegations that were rejected by the jury, including cultivation in 2011 as well as 2012.  To give you a sense of how realistic the government’s assumptions are, it estimates that each plant grown in 2011 produced more than a kilogram of marijuana. As the defense notes, that figure “flies in the face of both empirical reality and legal precedent,” since “numerous courts have recognized that a marijuana plant cannot yield anywhere near 1 kilogram of usable marijuana.” At one point in its sentencing memo, the prosecution even claims the defendants somehow managed to produce “1000 kilograms per plant.” I assume that’s a typo, but who knows? The government also thinks the 2012 harvest should be measured by the weight of the plants, including leaves, stems, water, and clinging dirt.

The prosecution’s insistence that Firestack-Harvey and the Greggs deserve to spend at least three and a half years in prison is puzzling, as is its willingness to posit super-productive, science fictional marijuana plants in service of that goal. But this case has been a puzzle from the beginning.

I assume that this federal prosecution started because federal authorities thought the defendants here were doing a whole lot more than what the feds were able to prove in court.  For that reason, I can sort of understand why the feds started this prosecution way back in early 2012.  But now, three years later, with the defendants acquitted on most charges (and now with lots of persons selling lots of recreational marijuana within the state), I have a very hard time understanding just how the feds can think a lengthy prison sentence is "not greater than necessary" for these defendants in light of the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of these defendants.

I have in the excerpt above links to the parties' sentencing briefs, and I sincerely seek input on the question in the title of this post in light of some of the arguments made thereing.  Notably, the government's sentencing memo is only focused on dickering over the applicable guideline range; it does not appear to make any formal arguments for a signficant prison sentence in light of all the 3553(a) sentencing factos that judges now must consider after Booker.  So I suppose it is still possible that even the government will, come the actual sentencing later this week, acknowledge that this remarkable case does not justify any significant federal prison sentence for any of the defendants with no criminal history.  But if the government seeks a prison term, and if the judge imposes a prison term, I would be ready and eager to argue on appeal for these defendants that such a punishment cannot possibly be reasonable in light of all the sentencing commands Congress put into 3553(a).

Prior related posts:

June 8, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

SCOTUS grants cert on a federal case concerning restraining assets for hiring defense counsel and denies cert in notable gun case

The Supreme Court started its work this morning with this order list that include a grant of certiorari in one federal criminal case, Luis v. US.  This SCOTUSblog page provides this account of the issue the case presents:

Whether the pretrial restraint of a criminal defendant's legitimate, untainted assets (those not traceable to a criminal offense) needed to retain counsel of choice violates the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.

In addition, at the end of the orders list, the Justices denied cert in a gun case from San Francisco, which prompted a lengthy dissent by Justice Thomas (joined by Justice Scalia). Here is how that dissent begins:

“Self-defense is a basic right” and “the central component” of the Second Amendment’s guarantee of an individual’s right to keep and bear arms.  McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U. S. 742, 767 (2010) (emphasis deleted).  Less than a decade ago, we explained that an ordinance requiring firearms in the home to be kept inoperable, without an exception for self-defense, conflicted with the Second Amendment because it “ma[de] it impossible for citizens to use [their firearms] for the core lawful purpose of selfdefense.”  District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U. S. 570, 630 (2008).  Despite the clarity with which we described the Second Amendment’s core protection for the right of self-defense, lower courts, including the ones here, have failed to protect it.  Because Second Amendment rights are no less protected by our Constitution than other rights enumerated in that document, I would have granted this petition.

As I have noted in lots of prior posts in the wake of the Heller and McDonald rulings, if it is really true that "Second Amendment rights are no less protected by our Constitution than other rights enumerated in that document," a lot of laws criminalizing and severely punishing mere gun possession by those with a distant criminal past might be constitutionally suspect.  But this dissent from Justice Thomas, which garnered only one additional Justice, confirms my belief that the majority of the Supreme Court does not really agree that the Second Amendment works just like most other rights protected by the Constitution.

June 8, 2015 in Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Extended profile of judge strugging with extended mandatory minimum federal drug sentences

Download (1)The Washington Post has this lengthy article discussing the sentencing struggles of US District Judge Mark Bennett. The piece is headlined "Against his better judgment: In the meth corridor of Iowa, a federal judge comes face to face with the reality of congressionally mandated sentencing." Here are excerpts from the first part of the piece:

U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett entered and everyone stood. He sat and then they sat. “Another hard one,” he said, and the room fell silent. He was one of 670 federal district judges in the United States, appointed for life by a president and confirmed by the Senate, and he had taken an oath to “administer justice” in each case he heard. Now he read the sentencing documents at his bench and punched numbers into an oversize calculator. When he finally looked up, he raised his hands together in the air as if his wrists were handcuffed, and then he repeated the conclusion that had come to define so much about his career.

“My hands are tied on your sentence,” he said. “I’m sorry. This isn’t up to me.”

How many times had he issued judgments that were not his own? How often had he apologized to defendants who had come to apologize to him? For more than two decades as a federal judge, Bennett had often viewed his job as less about presiding than abiding by dozens of mandatory minimum sentences established by Congress in the late 1980s for federal offenses. Those mandatory penalties, many of which require at least a decade in prison for drug offenses, took discretion away from judges and fueled an unprecedented rise in prison populations, from 24,000 federal inmates in 1980 to more than 208,000 last year. Half of those inmates are nonviolent drug offenders. Federal prisons are overcrowded by 37 percent. The Justice Department recently called mass imprisonment a “budgetary nightmare” and a “growing and historic crisis.”

Politicians as disparate as President Obama and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are pushing new legislation in Congress to weaken mandatory minimums, but neither has persuaded Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee that is responsible for holding initial votes on sentencing laws. Even as Obama has begun granting clemency to a small number of drug offenders, calling their sentences “outdated,” Grassley continues to credit strict sentencing with helping reduce violent crime by half in the past 25 years, and he has denounced the new proposals in a succession of speeches to Congress. “Mandatory minimum sentences play a vital role,” he told Congress again last month.

But back in Grassley’s home state, in Iowa’s busiest federal court, the judge who has handed down so many of those sentences has concluded something else about the legacy of his work. “Unjust and ineffective,” he wrote in one sentencing opinion. “Gut-wrenching,” he wrote in another. “Prisons filled, families divided, communities devastated,” he wrote in a third.

And now it was another Tuesday in Sioux City — five hearings listed on his docket, five more nonviolent offenders whose cases involved mandatory minimums of anywhere from five to 20 years without the possibility of release. Here in the methamphetamine corridor of middle America, Bennett averaged seven times as many cases each year as a federal judge in New York City or Washington. He had sentenced two convicted murderers to death and several drug cartel bosses to life in prison, but many of his defendants were addicts who had become middling dealers, people who sometimes sounded to him less like perpetrators than victims in the case reports now piled high on his bench. “History of family addiction.” “Mild mental retardation.” “PTSD after suffering multiple rapes.” “Victim of sexual abuse.” “Temporarily homeless.” “Heavy user since age 14.”

Bennett tried to forget the details of each case as soon as he issued a sentence. “You either drain the bathtub, or the guilt and sadness just overwhelms you,” he said once, in his chambers, but what he couldn’t forget was the total, more than 1,100 nonviolent offenders and counting to whom he had given mandatory minimum sentences he often considered unjust. That meant more than $200 million in taxpayer money he thought had been misspent. It meant a generation of rural Iowa drug addicts he had institutionalized. So he had begun traveling to dozens of prisons across the country to visit people he had sentenced, answering their legal questions and accompanying them to drug treatment classes, because if he couldn’t always fulfill his intention of justice from the bench, then at least he could offer empathy. He could look at defendants during their sentencing hearings and give them the dignity of saying exactly what he thought.

“Congress has tied my hands,” he told one defendant now. “We are just going to be warehousing you,” he told another. “I have to uphold the law whether I agree with it or not,” he said a few minutes later.

June 8, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, June 05, 2015

Former Pardon Attorney: "A Modest Proposal to Expedite the Administration's Clemency Initiative"

Love_margaret_02_crop2_MA31053191-0003Regular readers know I have given lots of space this week to coverage and criticism of federal clemency efforts.  I am pleased to continue now with a guest post via former Pardon Attorney Margaret Love, which she sent my way under the title "A Modest Proposal to Expedite the Administration's Clemency Initiative":

Mark Osler’s post in this space on June 4 ("Another View on Clemency Project 2014") recounts his unsuccessful efforts several years ago to persuade the Administration to establish a presidential commission, similar to the one that handled cases of Vietnam draft evaders and deserters during the Ford Administration, to review and recommend clemency relief for the thousands of prisoners serving prison sentences imposed more than a decade ago that are now generally considered far too severe.  He suggests that the reason the Administration chose not to follow this path relates to its doubt that Congress would fund such an effort. Instead, the Justice Department chose to address the problem of excessive sentences by asking a consortium of private organizations to manage it through the volunteer efforts of the private bar.

We will never know whether Professor Osler’s commission idea would have worked, or whether lack of funding was the reason it was rejected.  But it does appear that the structure put in place instead to manage the Administration's clemency initiative has (in his words) “struggled with the overwhelming number of cases (over 30,000) referred to it.”

It did not help that the Administrative Office for U.S. Courts sharply limited the role that Federal Public Defender Organizations could play in the clemency initiative, by declaring that CJA funds could not be spent on clemency representations.  Many, including myself, believe that the sentencing expertise and advocacy of the Federal Defenders is critical to implementing the sort of large scale program of sentence reduction the Administration evidently had in mind.

But there is another approach that might have been taken by the Administration that would have ensured a central role for the Federal Defenders.  This approach, which might still be taken, would make extraordinary sentence reduction the responsibility of the federal courts as well as of the President.  Bringing cases back to court would not require new legislation or new funds, since there is already on the books a judicial sentence reduction authority that could achieve the same result as executive clemency, through court proceedings where CJA appointments are clearly authorized.  And, because a large scale sentence reduction program is already underway in the federal courts, economies of scale are possible.

Specifically, 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) provides that a court may at any time reduce a sentence upon motion of the Bureau of Prisons for “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” The Sentencing Commission is authorized under 28 U.S.C. § 994(t) to establish policy for courts considering BOP motions under § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), which it has done under USSG ¶ 1B1.13.  Under this policy guideline, “extraordinary and compelling reasons” that may justify sentence reduction include terminal illness, a physical or medical condition that diminishes a person’s ability to provide self-care in a prison environment, the death or incapacitation of a child’s only caregiver, and any other reason that may be determined to be “extraordinary and compelling” by the Director of BOP. It is noteworthy that several of the organizations represented on the Clemency Project 2014 steering committee are on record with the Sentencing Commission as favoring a more expansive menu of “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warranting sentence reduction, including one that now seems prescient: “the defendant would have received a significantly lower sentence under a subsequent change in applicable law that has not been made retroactive.”

Less than two years ago BOP issued a new policy statement with a list of circumstances in which it may seek a sentence reduction, a list that is evidently not intended to be exhaustive. See Program Statement 5050.46, as amended (August 12, 2013).  Accordingly, there is no reason why BOP could not determine, with or without an amendment to ¶ 1B1.13, that “extraordinary and compelling reasons” exist in any case meeting the criteria set forth by the Deputy Attorney General as warranting a grant of clemency. The coincidence of the standards in the two contexts would be particularly fitting in light of the fact that the judicial sentence reduction authority in § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) was originally enacted in 1976, at the Justice Department’s instance, to expedite sentence reductions that previously had required a clemency application to be submitted to the President through the Office of the Pardon Attorney.

There are in addition other reasons why it would be appropriate to supplement the clemency initiative with a statutory sentence reduction initiative implemented through the courts, including a general preference for a judicial decision-maker under federal sentencing law and policy, and for a congressionally authorized approach over an extra-legal use of executive power. Most scholars agree that clemency ought always to be a second choice where the law provides a remedy for sentencing unfairness or undue severity, as it does in this case.  See, e.g., Daniel J. Freed & Steven L. Chanenson, Pardon Power and Sentencing Policy, 13 Fed. Sent. Rptr. 119, 124 (2001) (“Wherever a rule can be structured to guide the discretion of judges or administrative agencies in determining – with reasons – whether to mitigate the sentences of similarly situated offenders, we think such a system should ordinarily be accorded priority over one that relies exclusively upon the unstructured, unexplained discretion of a president to grant or deny individual pardons or commutations.”)

Traditionally, the Federal Defenders have played a central role in proceedings involving judicial consideration of sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(2) where guideline ranges have been lowered, even though there is no constitutional right to counsel in such proceedings.  They are key players in the massive effort to reduce sentences now underway under the so-called “Drugs Minus Two” guidelines amendment. There is no reason why the Defenders should not play a similar role in judicial sentence reduction proceedings under § 3582(c)(1).  There does not appear to be any relevant difference between the two types of proceedings as far as the discretionary appointment power in 18 U.S.C. § 3006A(a)(2) is concerned. In the interests of judicial economy, these proceedings might even be combined.

All it would take to make this happen would be a resolve on the part of the Department of Justice to use this statute for the purpose it was originally intended.

Augmenting the Administration’s sentence reduction program through broader use of a judicial sentence reduction mechanism, which the Justice Department’s own Inspector General has repeatedly criticized as underutilized (most recently for aging prisoners), would accomplish the Administration’s goals in reducing unduly severe sentences, while at the same time regularizing sentence reduction through the courts pursuant to statute.  It would put sentence reduction on a sounder long-term footing that is more consistent with the principles of determinate sentencing, be more predictable and accountable as a practical matter, and respond to any concerns about the unaccountable use of executive power.

Many years ago, when I was serving as Pardon Attorney, then-Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann asked me why we should ask the President to commute the sentence of an elderly prisoner when (he said) "we can do the job ourselves."  Now I would ask the new DAG the same question.

Some prior related posts:

June 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Is Missouri becoming the "new Texas" when it comes to death penalty administration?

Enhanced-27540-1433442100-4The question in the title of this post is prompted by two notable new stories showing some notable new details about how the Show Me state (1) has recently become a new national leader in actually carrying out death sentences, and (2) now seems well positioned to complete more executions in the near future than any other state.  This lengthy Mashall Project piece focused on capital defense in Mizzou provides this background: 

[Jennifer Herdon's] condemned clients were convicted of monstrous crimes, but at least a few presented powerful issues for appeal. Among them were a man diagnosed as schizophrenic who hallucinated clouds of flies and insisted on never speaking aloud the number “between 31 and 33”; a man so intellectually impaired that, as a child, he couldn’t understand hide-and-seek and who, at age 16, functioned like someone age 4-to-7; and a man whose claim of innocence was sufficiently compelling to convince a journalism class to dive into the case.

In the past two years, while much of the country has retreated from the death penalty, Missouri has gone the opposite direction. It has accelerated executions – last year, tying Texas for most in the country, with 10 – to such an extent that the “capital defense bar is in crisis,” according to a letter written to the Missouri Supreme Court by four members of an American Bar Association death-penalty assessment team.

Those four members – two law professors, a retired state appellate judge, and the chairman of the Missouri State Public Defender Commission – wrote in March that a mere “handful” of attorneys have represented most of the state’s executed inmates, despite the “notoriously lengthy and complex” nature of capital appellate work, coupled with “the emotional toll of losing client after client.” The team recommended that for attorneys handling capital appeals to be able to do their jobs adequately, the execution dates for clients should be staggered by at least six months.

Herndon, starting in November 2013, had five clients executed in just 15 months. In all, she’s had seven clients executed since 2003. And she has another execution scheduled next week. Herndon may be the most extreme example of how Missouri’s quickened pace of executions is swamping the defense bar, but she is not alone. Last year, six attorneys in addition to Herndon had multiple clients executed.

That list would have been longer if not for a stay granted by the U.S. Supreme Court before Mark Christeson’s scheduled execution in October. Christeson’s two attorneys, who had represented another inmate executed earlier in the year, missed a crucial filing deadline, not even meeting with their client until six weeks after it had passed. “Cases, including this one, are falling through the cracks of the system,” more than a dozen former state and federal judges wrote in a brief.

Paul Litton, a University of Missouri law professor and one of the four signatories on the letter from the ABA’s death-penalty assessment team, says: “With the executions happening month after month after month, and with so few attorneys handling these cases, the workload is just overwhelming.”

On Tuesday, Herndon and her co-counsel filed a request for a stay of execution for Richard Strong, scheduled to be executed June 9. The motion’s basis was their workloads, in particular Herndon’s. The motion says that when Herndon’s last client was executed in February, she put in more than 225 hours, “knowing that much more should have been done …” For the pending execution, she has 20 banker’s boxes of materials to review. Herndon “is struggling to fulfill her duties,” the motion says.

“Mr. Strong is at least entitled to a ‘fair fight.’  Such is impossible when defense counsel come in bloody and bruised, while the government has a seemingly endless supply of fresh reinforcements …,” the motion says.

Meanwhile, as now highlighted by this notable new Buzzfeed article (from which I got the graphic here), it would appear that Missouri has figured out some way to get all the execution drugs they could possibly need even as other states struggle mightily in this arena. The Buzzfied piece carries this full headline: "Missouri Is Mysteriously Building A Massive Stockpile Of Execution Drugs: Missouri now has enough drugs for 16 lethal injections. But how? The drugs often used in executions generally have a short expiration date." Here is an excerpt:

State officials changed drug suppliers in February 2014, after their previous supplier, the Apothecary Shoppe, was sued for, among other things, selling execution drugs when it wasn’t licensed to do so in Missouri. Until February 2014, Missouri’s drug stockpile hovered around zero, presumably because the compounded drugs expired so quickly. Since changing drug suppliers, however, the state’s drug supply has exploded, according to records obtained by BuzzFeed News.

With FDA-approved suppliers either discontinuing the manufacture of pentobarbital or enacting stringent guidelines to prevent states from getting ahold of their drugs, it led some capital attorneys to believe the state is resorting to veterinary pentobarbital — something that would be much easier to find, but illegal to use on humans.

When two attorneys, Cheryl Pilate and Lindsay Runnels, approached the Department of Corrections, officials refused to say whether the drug is veterinary. “The response has been very evasive,” Pilate said. “We made several requests about the use of veterinary drugs, and instead of getting the response of “Of course we would never use a veterinary drugs,” they [were] refusing to say.”

When BuzzFeed News asked the state’s corrections department whether the state is using veterinary drugs in executions, spokesperson David Owen said, “No.” Owen would not answer any questions about how the state could be holding onto drugs for so long, given the short shelf life of compounded drugs. Gov. Jay Nixon’s Office would not answer questions, either, and a spokesperson with Attorney General Chris Koster’s office declined to comment.

“It’s the ease with which they’re getting it,” Pilate said. “Other states are having serious problems getting ahold of their drugs. Why not Missouri?”

June 5, 2015 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Professor Mark Osler's informed perspective on recent federal clemency developments

09fbbcfProfessor Mark Osler is rightly considered one of the most informed and effective sentencing reform advocates, especially in the arena of clemency.  Thus I was very pleased when he wrote to me as a follow-up to my recent posts about recent federal clemency developments and provided some lengthy reflections he has titled "Another View of Clemency Project 2014."  Here are Mark's informed and important insights: 

In the fall of 2012, I gathered together four students, a passel of handwritten letters pleading for help, and a bunch of Margaret Colgate Love articles and created the nation's first clinic focused on federal commutations. The project has turned out to be wonderful as a teaching model; my students get to learn the core legal skill of building a narrative and advocating for a client in a process relatively free of procedural snares. It also has propelled me into the simmering debate over the Obama administration's clemency policy.

Of course, for most of the Obama presidency it wouldn't be very accurate to call the way clemency was handled as a "policy." For the most part, it appears, they simply lopped over the failed guidelines and rules of his predecessor rather than work to revive this key Constitutional power. This failure represents a troubling lack of focus in a president who (1) has properly decried the disparate incarceration of black men through the War on Drugs, and (2) came to politics as a Constitutional Law professor.

At the same time I was starting my clemency clinic, I also began to advocate for a vigorous, short-term project to use the pardon power to help those prisoners serving long sentences under mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines on crack cocaine that were amended in 2010, but not made retroactive. With Nkechi Taifa and others, I met four times with administration officials and urged them to follow the example of President Ford, who granted clemency to nearly 15,000 Vietnam-era draft evaders and deserters in just one year. Ford did this by convening a special commission outside of the Justice Department, and that commission left behind a remarkable report full of good advice. I even left a copy of the Ford Presidential Clemency Commission Report with those Obama advisors after a meeting in the Vice President's imposing office in the Eisenhower Building.

The Obama administration did not take our advice, but they did announce a very different short-term commutation initiative -- the Clemency Project 2014, which put in the hands of five non-profit groups the shepherding of worthwhile cases towards clemency. My hunch -- and it is only a hunch -- is that this course was chosen because the administration did not think that it could get the money needed to fund a Ford-style Clemency Board through the House of Representatives. The recent Marino Amendment (which seeks to bar the use of funds for the Clemency Project 2014 or for augmenting the Pardon Attorney's office) passed by the House on June 3rd shows that there was a sound basis for that fear.

As has been well-documented, the Clemency Project 2014 has struggled with the overwhelming number of cases (over 30,000) referred to it. If there is blame in that, I should share it. Though I am not affiliated with any of the five groups in charge, I have taken an active role in training pro bono lawyers for Clemency Project 2014, have tried to rally other law schools to the cause, and have taken on several cases myself. Obviously, the structure of this project is not the one I proposed, but it is the one that we have, and through the end of the Obama administration probably represents the best chance for a historic use of the pardon power by this President. It is unlikely that this administration will suddenly — in the next year and a half — repair its relationship with the House to the point where new funding for clemency reform can be found. The toxic dynamic that probably skunked my proposal is still at work.

Professor Berman has suggested that wealthy clemency proponents like the Kochs could go far in re-making the process if they were to invest their money in reform. I think he is right. There are two areas where those resources could be used efficiently. The first is by investing in the debate over who should be the next president. Sadly, we only talk about clemency in the political realm when it goes wrong (i.e. in the last days of Bill Clinton's presidency or Haley Barbour's governorship). We should be actively asking candidates what they would do with clemency when they are running for office, and urging them towards reform. Rachel Barkow and I have, for example, argued that the next administration should shift permanently to a process centered on a review board outside of the Department of Justice, and others have promoted similar ideas. The "Supernova Federal Clemency Institute" research group Professor Berman proposes is worthwhile — but probably most worthwhile (especially with Koch backing) if it is focused on the 2016 election and the first days of a new presidency.

Beyond that advocacy, it would be wise to devote private-funding resources to the Clemency Project 2014 itself, in two ways. First, the project has a devoted and talented but threadbare staff, and that has a cost. There are few resources available to CP14 to screen cases before sending them out to lawyers, for example, and that is a problem that can be solved with money and more bodies. Second, it would help to have full-time lawyers working as advocates on these cases as specialists, as they would be much more efficient than the pro-bono generalists who often have to learn federal sentencing law from scratch. In collaboration with NYU's Center on the Administration of Criminal Law and others, I am working to do exactly that. The more money we raise, the more lawyers can be hired. But... it has to happen fast. The window is closing, and the election season is already upon us.

Some prior related posts:

June 4, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Notable application of Padilla by Fifth Circuit even after judicial deportation warning

The Fifth Circuit yesterday in US v. Batamula, No. 12-20630 (5th Cir. June 2, 2015) (available here), engaged in an extended and interesting discussion of a Padilla claim. The opinion's conclusion highlights why Padilla fans will also like this panel ruling:

For these reasons, we conclude that a judge’s statement at the guilty plea proceeding that deportation is “likely” is not dispositive of whether a petitioner whose counsel failed to advise him regarding the immigration consequences of his plea can demonstrate prejudice as a result therefrom.  Batamula thus is not foreclosed from challenging his guilty plea under Padilla solely because the district court notified him that deportation following the service of his sentence is “likely,” and the district court erred in holding to the contrary. The record is currently insufficiently developed for us to apply the fact-intensive, totality of the circumstances prejudice analysis necessary to determine whether Batamula is entitled to relief on his Sixth Amendment claim.  We therefore REVERSE and REMAND for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

June 3, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Bifurcation Nation: Strategy in Contemporary American Punishment"

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

Important recent work by penal scholars recognizes the need to study the interplay between federal and state initiatives and between state and local structures.  But the sociology of punishment has been less cognizant of late of the importance of studying the relation between the divergent treatment of high-level and low-level offenses and offenders as a means of understanding those federal, state or local approaches to penality. By one conventional view, the divergent policy trends for violent and nonviolent offenders are unrelated operations working at different ends of an ambivalent carceral spectrum; by another emergent perspective, the increasing decarceration of low-level offenders marks a general shift away from mass incarceration that has yet to extend to serious offenders and offenses.

This paper suggests that, rather than a unidirectional force or mere ambivalent mix of old and new, contemporary sentencing policy is better understood as a bifurcation strategy — one that responds uniquely to the new dilemmas and new constraints presented by a moment we might call, with cautious optimism, late mass incarceration.

June 3, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Might Charles Koch put big money behind big reform of federal clemency process?

Post - March 2013 (5)The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new USA Today article headlined "Koch urges Obama administration to speed up clemency program." Here are excerpts:

Billionaire industrialist Charles Koch and top officials in his company are calling for the Obama administration to release from prison the thousands of non-violent offenders who qualify for clemency under a Justice Department initiative.  The push to shorten long federal sentences, mostly for drug offenses, has had a sluggish start since it was announced in April 2014. President Obama has commuted the sentences of only a few dozen inmates since the program took effect.

"I'm not faulting the administration," Mark Holden, Koch Industries' senior vice president and general counsel told USA TODAY on Monday. But, he said, "people got their hopes up. Why isn't it going any faster?"

Koch Industries officials did not offer a specific policy changes but hope their statement of unequivocal support for the clemency initiative will focus attention on the program. "When Charles says something … it helps to highlight the issue and bring other like-minded people to the table," Holden said.

Charles Koch, whose multibillion-dollar industrial conglomerate is one of the nation's largest private companies, has an outsize influence in Republican politics. His expansive network plans to spend about $900 million ahead of 2016 elections — about $300 million of which will be spent on electoral politics, he said. Koch also recently told USA TODAY that he might financially support up to five Republican presidential contenders in next year's primary: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida.

"We're going to be supportive of those candidates who are supportive of the issues that are important to us," Holden said Monday, when asked what role the clemency issue might play in the 2016 race. Criminal-justice reform, he said, is a key part of Koch's "freedom framework." Holden noted that Paul and Cruz have pushed for changes to the system. Both have signed on to a Senate bill that would cut mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses....

Lawyers involved in the clemency initiative say the process has been slowed, in part, because the eligibility standards may be too tough for the inmates to meet. The main targets of the program are drug offenders who were sentenced under a strict crack-cocaine law that was eased by Congress in 2010. To be eligible, inmates must be non-violent offenders who already have served 10 years and would have received shorter prison terms had they been sentenced under today's laws. They also must have a record of good conduct in prison and no significant criminal history....

More than 30,000 federal inmates applied for representation through the Clemency Project 2014, a consortium of legal organizations, including the American Bar Association and The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, that are helping eligible inmates seek commutations.

Justice Department officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday but have said they are likely to recommend more commutations to the White House. The administration also has requested a 66% budget increase for the Justice Department's Office of Pardon Attorney, which reviews the clemency requests.

Holden and Koch Industries spokeswoman Melissa Cohlmia said company officials decided to publicly support the clemency initiative and call for the faster release of inmates after receiving requests both from organizations and individual inmates, seeking Koch support for clemency applications. In a statement, Holden said Koch and the company back both the program and the Obama administration's eligibility criteria. He said the company also would like to see Congress revise more laws to cut prison time for inmates who would have received shorter terms had they been sentenced today.

"Until there is a change in that legal process, we believe that everyone who meets the common-sense criteria set by the Department of Justice should be granted clemency," Holden said in the statement. "We do not believe that keeping these individuals in prison under these circumstances is just nor does it enhance public safety."

I am always pleased to see prominent folks like the Koch brothers, and others who talk prominently about the importance and virtues of freedom, bringing their message to the criminal justice arena and pushing for reforms. I am especially pleased to see Koch Industries prominently "throwing its weight around" in support of more federal clemency grants ASAP. That all said, though, I would really like to see the Koch brothers start prominently throwing some money around to engineer systemic changes to clemency procedures and politics.

Together, the Koch brothers are estimated to be worth $80 billion; a high-profile investment of just, say, .01% of these riches spent on creating and staffing what I might call a "Supernova Federal Clemency Institute" could and would go a long way to transforming the modern clemency conversation.  I am branding this suggested clemency effort on the kind of stellar explosion that briefly outshines an entire galaxy, radiating as much energy as possible before burning out: a "Supernova Federal Clemency Institute," especially if funded by just .01% of the Koch fortune ($8 million), would explode on the clemency scene and could burn very bright for the final 18 months of the Obama presidency.

With $8 million in resources (and perhaps more coming from others committed to personal freedom in the United States), the "Supernova Federal Clemency Institute" could hire and effectively compensate a staff of lawyers, researchers and advocates who surely could produce, perhaps in a matter of weeks, a robust list of meritorious federal clemency candidates.  This imagined "Supernova Federal Clemency Institute" also could work on rentry project for those granted clemency, could produce reports on best-practices in the states, and could make recommendations to the President and to Congress about how best to ensure federal and state clemency procedures are enduringly committed to helping "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."  

June 2, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Spotlighting the role and importance of federal prosecutors in the drug war

Mona Lynch has this notable new op-ed in today's New York Times headlined "Reining In Federal Prosecutors." here are excerpts:

In recent months, police departments and prison systems have been taking heat for the systemic abuses that mar our nation’s justice system. But one key player has been notably absent: For decades, our federal court system has been quietly perpetrating some of the deepest injustices in the name of the war on drugs.

Federal laws passed at the height of our punitive frenzy in the 1980s have been abused by overzealous federal prosecutors to compel guilty pleas and obtain long, unjust prison sentences, especially against black drug defendants. We must rein in these practices if we are to reshape our country’s criminal justice system for the 21st century.

Prosecutors have a number of tools at their disposal, the most powerful of which is the “851,” which can be filed against those with prior drug convictions to at least double mandatory minimum sentences. In the worst case, a 10-year mandatory minimum becomes a life sentence without parole for a defendant with two prior convictions. The 851 statute was passed in 1970 to give prosecutors more discretion to seek harsh sentences against only the most serious offenders, and exempt lower-level defendants. But it has been deployed in exactly the opposite manner.

I have conducted in-depth qualitative research and interviews in four federal districts; in each, the 851 threat loomed for nearly everyone with the eligible prior record. In the words of one of my interviewees, “the 851 is the ultimate lever” used by prosecutors to force a guilty plea. And it almost always worked: Defendants were compelled to waive their rights and plead guilty to ensure that their sentences were not doubled, or worse.... [N]o entity tracks the threat or use of the 851 in drug cases. We do know, however, from qualitative research like mine and recent work by the United States Sentencing Commission that its coercive use has been pervasive.

Data also indicate that mandatory minimums and enhancements like the 851 have been disproportionately used against black defendants. While research shows that illicit drug use and distribution is generally proportionate to the racial makeup of the nation’s population, black people are overrepresented as drug defendants in federal courts, constituting 30 percent of all those sentenced for drug crimes, and a full two-thirds of those who receive life sentences.

Between 1992 and 2012, about 2,300 black men have been sentenced to life for federal drug convictions, 72 percent of whom had asserted their right to trial. While data cannot pinpoint the 851 as the trigger of those life sentences, it does indicate that 96 percent were subject to drug mandatory minimums at sentencing.

Some effort has been made to address the overzealous use of the 851 threat. In 2014, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. directed prosecutors to refrain from using the 851 as a threat or inducement in plea negotiations. But while his directive has clearly changed behavior in some districts, the 851 threat remains alive in others.

As we grapple with the consequences of a three-decade-long law-and-order binge that has disproportionately affected black communities, we must repair the damage done in the past and prevent a repeat in the future. That means revisiting the unconscionably long sentences that keep Brandon and others behind bars for most or all of their lives, and it means removing hammers like the 851 from the prosecutors’ toolbox to prevent their future abuse.

June 2, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, June 01, 2015

"The Missing Statistics of Criminal Justice"

QuestionmarkThe title of this post is the headline of this interesting commentary by Matt Ford in The Atlantic.  The subheadline sets out its themes: "An abundance of data has fueled the reform movement, but from prisons to prosecutors, crucial questions remain unquantified." Here are excerpts:

After Ferguson, a noticeable gap in criminal-justice statistics emerged: the use of lethal force by the police.  The federal government compiles a wealth of data on homicides, burglaries, and arson, but no official, reliable tabulation of civilian deaths by law enforcement exists....

This raises an obvious question: If the FBI can’t tell how many people were killed by law enforcement last year, what other kinds of criminal-justice data are missing?  Statistics are more than just numbers: They focus the attention of politicians, drive the allocation of resources, and define the public debate.  Public officials — from city councilors to police commanders to district attorneys — are often evaluated based on how these numbers change during their terms in office.  But existing statistical measures only capture part of the overall picture, and the problems that go unmeasured are often also unaddressed. What changes could the data that isn’t currently collected produce if it were gathered?

In one sense, searching for these statistical gaps is like fishing blindfolded — how can someone know what they don’t know? But some absences are more obvious than others. Bruce Western, a professor of sociology at Harvard University, cited two major gaps. One is the racial demography of arrests and criminal records....

There may be many missing statistics from the realm of policing, but even greater gaps lie elsewhere.  Thanks to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, police departments might actually be one of the better quantified parts of the criminal-justice system.  Prisons also provide a wealth of statistics, which researchers have used to help frame mass incarceration in its historical and demographic content.  The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics maintains an annual report on the size of the U.S. prison population. The report includes state-by-state demographic statistics like inmate ages, races, crimes committed, and other crucial data for researchers and policymakers.

But while current prison statistics give a good sense of the size and scale of mass incarceration, they provide little information on conditions inside the vast constellation of American prisons.  Perhaps the most glaring gap is solitary confinement.  No one knows exactly how many people are currently kept in isolation in American prisons. “There are estimates, but no official count nationwide,” Western said....

Another major gap in prison statistics is the number of non-sexual assaults behind bars. Although Congress mandated the collection of sexual assault statistics with the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2002, prisons are not required to report ordinary assaults to the Bureau of Justice Statistics....

Prisons and police departments may be the most visible parts of the criminal-justice system, but they are not necessarily the most powerful.  As judges lost flexibility with the growth of mandatory-minimum sentences during the tough-on-crime era, prosecutors became the most pivotal actors within the criminal-justice process.  This rise in influence was matched with a decline in transparency.  “Up until the late 1980s and early 1990s, we used to collect more data — not a whole lot of data, but more data — on what prosecutors do,” [Professor Marie] Gottschalk explained.  “[Now] the police are certainly much more accountable than prosecutors are, in terms of the visibility of what they do and the transparency of what they do.”

One prosecutorial tool with little transparency is plea dealing.  In 2013, more than 97 percent of all federal criminal charges that weren’t dismissed or dropped were resolved through plea deals.  (State-by-state totals are incomplete or unavailable, but often estimated to be similarly high.)  For prosecutors, the benefits are clear: Offenders are punished without expending manpower and resources in lengthy trials.  But plea deals are also one of the least-scrutinized parts of the criminal-justice system.  “In most cases, that’s a complete black box,” Gottschalk said.  “It allows prosecutors to have this enormous power without much transparency to the public.”

In the absence of reliable statistics, anecdotal evidence often fills the void. This is especially true when studying racial bias in the prosecutorial process.  Prosecutors are not required by law to compile data on racial disparities.  They also have little incentive to gather and publish it voluntarily, partly because of resource constraints and partly because of its potential negative implications.

A small number of offices have sought answers nonetheless, often with troubling results.  In 2011, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance invited the Vera Institute to examine his office’s internal records for evidence of racial disparities.  The institute’s final report found that disparities plagued every step of the process.  Among its findings: Black and Hispanic defendants were more likely to be offered plea deals on misdemeanors that included imprisonment than white and Asian defendants.  Would similar reviews of prosecutors’ offices nationwide produce similar results?...

This data’s absence shapes the public debate over mass incarceration in the same way that silence between notes of music gives rhythm to a song.  Imagine debating the economy without knowing the unemployment rate, or climate change without knowing the sea level, or healthcare reform without knowing the number of uninsured Americans. Legislators and policymakers heavily rely on statistics when crafting public policy. Criminal-justice statistics can also influence judicial rulings, including those by the Supreme Court, with implications for the entire legal system.

Beyond their academic and policymaking value, there’s also a certain power to statistics. They have the irreplaceable ability to both clarify social issues and structure the public’s understanding of them.  A wealth of data has allowed sociologists, criminologists, and political scientists to diagnose serious problems with the American criminal-justice system over the past twenty years.  Now that a growing bipartisan consensus recognizes the problem exists, gathering the right facts and figures could help point the way towards solutions.

June 1, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Has the approach and administration of Clemency Project 2014 actually made the federal clemency process worse?

Download (10)The depressing question in the title of this post is prompted by this depressing new USA Today article headlined "Obama administration clemency push gets slow start."  I have long tried to avoid being too pessimistic about what has been unfolding on the federal clemency front over the last 18 months, in part because I sincerely believed it would be nearly impossible to make the modern federal clemency process and products even worse. But this USA Today piece has me fearing that my own pessimistic instincts perhaps should now turn even darker (based on the statements and data points I have highlighted below):

A Justice Department push to shorten long drug sentences through President Obama's clemency powers has gotten off to a slow start: Obama has commuted the sentences of just two of the tens of thousands of federal inmates who have applied through the program.  Lawyers involved in the effort say the year-old clemency initiative has been hampered by the complexity of the cases and questions about the eligibility criteria, which may still be too strict to help most of the prison population.

The result is a system that appears even more backlogged than it was before the initiative began.  "The criteria basically suggest that a whole bunch of good citizens who committed one little mistake got significantly more than 10 years in prison, and fortunately that's pretty rare," said Johanna Markind, a former attorney-adviser in the Office of Pardon Attorney who left in March.  "I think they've kind of belatedly realized that people are doing their jobs, and those perfect cases they think are there don't really exist," she said.  "For all the sound and fury about the commutations, the clemency initiative has only come up with a handful of cases that fit" the criteria.

The clemency initiative was intended to help federal inmates who would have received shorter prison terms had they been sentenced today.  That applies mostly to drug offenders after Congress shortened sentences for crack cocaine in 2010.  To be eligible, inmates must have already served 10 years of their sentence.

Last year, a record 6,561 federal prisoners — three times the usual number — filed petitions with the Justice Department's Office of Pardon Attorney, which advises the president on all requests for clemency.  Under the constitution, the president has the absolute power to grant pardons and commute sentences.

More than 30,000 federal inmates applied for representation through the Clemency Project 2014, a consortium of lawyers who have volunteered to help eligible inmates through the often complicated and time-consuming process of seeking a commutation. But 13 months later, those lawyers have submitted just 31 petitions. And while Obama has used his pardon power to shorten the sentences of 43, most of those cases predate the clemency initiative.  Over six years, Obama has granted just 0.2% of the commutation petitions submitted.

The Justice Department says it expects to recommend more commutations to Obama as it reviews the petitions.  But that could take a while: In its 2016 budget request to Congress, the department said the deluge of clemency applications is too much for the current staff to manage.  "As OPA's existing staff has discovered, expending the substantial resources required simply to manage such a volume of clemency requests significantly decreases those available for analyzing and evaluating the merits of individual applications and preparing the appropriate letters of advice to inform the president," the Justice Department said in its congressional budget justification.

Obama has proposed a 66% budget increase for the Office of Pardon Attorney in 2016, and is seeking twice as many lawyers to process all the paperwork.  And that paperwork can be daunting, requiring an examination of trial transcripts, the pre-sentence report (which is often sealed) and Bureau of Prisons files.

To be eligible under the program, inmates must be low-level offenders with no ties to gangs or cartels.  They must have demonstrated good conduct in prison, have no significant criminal history and no history of violence.  "There are gray areas, What is 'demonstrated good conduct in prison,' for example? Is that a pristine record?" said Cynthia Roseberry, a career public defender who now manages the Clemency Project 2014.

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Without knowing how the Obama administration will apply those vague criteria, it's impossible to know how many could be eligible.  "My hope is that thousands of those will meet the criteria, but I just can't speculate." Roseberry said.  She said she expects the numbers to increase as the Clemency Project continues to screen for likely candidates for commutation.  A Clemency Project screening committee has already notified more than 3,000 inmates it won't be accepting their cases.  Once a case is accepted, it's parceled out to a volunteer attorney such as Mary Davis.

Davis represents Byron McDade, a Washington man sentenced to 27 years for cocaine trafficking even as his co-conspirators — who testified against him — got no more than seven. In 2009, after McDade had served his first seven years, the judge who sentenced him urged Obama to commute his sentence.  "While the Court is powerless to reduce the sentence it was required by then-existing law to impose, the president is not," U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman wrote in another opinion last year,

So Davis assembled a 168-page petition with the help of two West Virginia University law students — Laura Hoffman and Amanda Camplesi — who spent a combined 122 hours on the case, collecting paperwork and visiting McDade at a federal prison in Pennsylvania. Davis said the work was complicated, even as a veteran federal defense attorney specializing in sentencing appeals.  "I know there were attorneys signing up for this who don't do criminal defense work, and I would think it would be extremely difficult," she said.

McDade is an unusual case: Before being convicted in 2002, his only offense was a minor misdemeanor with a $10 fine.  Markind, who worked on commutation cases as a Justice Department lawyer, said the clemency initiative did not relax Obama's "three strikes" policy making anyone with three or more criminal convictions ineligible for clemency. "Criminals with a record do not make the most appealing poster children," she said....

Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis and a former prosecutor ... said the clemency process is already too bureaucratic and too distant from the ultimate decision-maker: the president.  The Clemency Project hopes to cut through the process by helping to provide the Justice Department with better, more complete case files to review.  But that solution has also led to criticism from Capitol Hill, where Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, says that the administration is outsourcing a government responsibility.

"We've failed the same way through different kinds of administrations, and the problem isn't the administration, it's the process," Osler said. "The sad thing is, every president recently has gotten to the end of their term and said, 'Hey, where are all the good clemency cases?' I sure hope that will change, but it's going to be a furious last year as these things start to come in even greater numbers."

It is hard to fault, and I am very disinclined to criticize excessively, all of the well-meaning and dedicated lawyers and administrators operating now in a system taking on Rube-Goldberg-quality with seemingly too many elements, criteria and moving parts.  Still, by now having so many more people applying for clemency, along with so many more lawyers trying to figure out the meaning and importance of so many vague criteria, it is not surprising that the clemency push/project has been most successful in producing a lot more paperwork and so many more questions about what this system is seeking to achieve.

I have long believed that President Obama could and should create an independent commission or task force or working group that would be tasked with making federal clemency reform a priority in a very short period of time.  Notably, as highlighted here, such a proactive approach to policing reform achieved a whole lot in just a matter of months:

On December 18, 2014, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order establishing the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  The Task Force Members sought expertise from stakeholders and input from the public as they worked to identify best practices and make recommendations to the President.  The Task Force submitted an initial report to the President on March 2, 2015 and released the final report on May 18, 2015.

Especially in light of all the new troubles and costs that the current approach is generating, I would urge the President to sign an Executive Order ASAP establishing the President's Task Force on 21st Century Clemency.  The Task Force Members could seek expertise from stakeholders and input from the public as they worked to identify best clemency practices and make recommendations to the President no later than December 1, 2015. That would still give Prez Obama a full year to implement an improved clemency process and would leave truly helpful legacy and structure in place from whomever becomes his successor.

Some prior related posts:

June 1, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Via similar 7-2 rulings, SCOTUS narrows reach of federal criminal and deportation statutes in Elonis and Mellouli

Via excerpts and links from this post at How Appealing I can effectively summarize the interesting Supreme Court work on criminal justice issues this morning:

The Court today issued four rulings in argued cases.

1. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court in Mellouli v. Lynch, No. 13-1034. Justice Clarence Thomas issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. joined....

4. And Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. delivered the opinion of the Court in Elonis v.United States, No. 13-983. Justice Alito issued an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. And Justice Thomas issued a dissenting opinion....

In early news coverage, The Associated Press has reports headlined "High court throws out conviction for Facebook threats";... "Justices reverse deportation of man over minor drug crime"; ... Richard Wolf of USA Today reports that "Violent threats on Facebook may be OK, justices rule"; ... and "Justices sock it to Justice Department over drug deportations."

As the title of this post suggests, there are considerable similarities between what the Justices did in both Melloni (a low-profile immigration case) and Elonis (a high-profile federal criminal case). In both setting, via a 7-2 vote with Justices Thomas and Alito dissenting, the Court adopted a norrower construction of an applicable federal statute based on concerns that the federal government's (and lower courts') interpretation goes too far (for deportation purposes in Melloni, for criminal prosecution in Elonis).  The rulings and opinions are quite limited in both cases, and Justice Alito's dissent in Elonis fittingly laments this reality at its outset: 

In Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 177 (1803), the Court famously proclaimed: “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Today, the Court announces: It is emphatically the prerogative of this Court to say only what the law is not.

I hope and expect to have more to say about the lengthy opinions in Elonis in future posts, although I suspect that the ruling will ultimately prove more consequental for what it failed to do and say than for what it actually does and says.

June 1, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"The GOP should turn its attention to prosecutorial misconduct"

The title of this post is the subheadine of this notable new National Review commentary authored by Kevin Williamson.  The provocative main headline for the piece is "When District Attorneys Attack," and here are excerpts:

Prosecutorial misconduct is a plague upon these United States, from the vodka-pickled Democratic political jihadists in Austin to California, where judges complain of an “epidemic” of prosecutorial misconduct abetted by Democratic attorney general Kamala Harris, who is seeking to replace retiring Barbara Boxer in the Senate.

The Democrats have long been acculturated to the climate of corruption that attends government agencies that are largely free of ordinary accountability, where a carefully cultivated lack of transparency shields operatives from scrutiny and normal oversight. Republicans can rouse themselves to action, if only barely, when this involves the federal Internal Revenue Service or Environmental Protection Agency.  But deference to police agencies and prosecutors is so habitual among the members of the law-and-order party that they instinctively look for excuses when presented with obvious examples of police misconduct, and twiddle their thumbs in the 99 percent of cases of prosecutorial misconduct that do not involve a Republican elected official.

But only the Republican party has the credibility and the political capital to take on the difficult and sure-to-be-thankless task of reining in rogue police agencies and abusive prosecutors — and they may as well take a look at our scandalous prisons while they are at it.  Some Republican leaders, notably Texas’s former governor Rick Perry, have been active and energetic partisans of reform, largely under the banner of the excellent Right on Crime campaign.  But this is not really a job for presidents or even governors: This is a job for mayors, city councilmen, district attorneys, sheriffs, and police chiefs.

June 1, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Fascinating fight over fate of offenders on Nebraska's death row after capital repeal

This Fox News piece, headlined "Nebraska AG fighting to block death penalty repeal from reversing death row sentences," highlights the fascinating fight now developing in the Cornhusker state following its formal repeal of its death penalty statutes:

Nebraska's top lawyer is headed to court to prevent the state's sweeping death penalty repeal from reversing sentences of those already on death row -- in the latest flare-up between the legislature and Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts' administration.

The legislature delivered a blow to the governor Wednesday when it voted 30-19 to override Ricketts' veto of legislation that would put an end to capital punishment in Nebraska. With the power play by the state's Republican-dominated legislature, Nebraska becomes the first conservative state in decades to end the death penalty.

But Ricketts' administration is not giving up the fight. While not contesting the ban's impact on future prosecutions, the administration is battling to prevent it from undoing prior death penalty sentences for the 10 inmates currently on death row.

In a written statement, state Attorney General Doug Peterson challenged part of the bill that says the "intent" of the legislature is that any death penalty "imposed but not carried out prior to the effective date of this act" be changed to "life imprisonment." Peterson said: "We believe this stated intent is unconstitutional."

He said that Nebraska's Board of Pardons has exclusive power to change final sentences imposed by courts. "Thus, the Attorney General intends to seek a court decision, at the appropriate time, to definitively resolve the issue of the State's authority to carry out the death sentences previously ordered by Nebraska's courts for the 10 inmates now on death row."

A Ricketts spokesman told FoxNews.com Friday that the governor agrees with the AG's assessment and will pursue the court's legal opinion on the matter as soon as possible....

"My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families," Ricketts said in a statement after Wednesday's vote, which broke across party lines and captured the votes necessary to override Ricketts' veto. The legislature had passed the anti-death penalty bill last week, 32-15.

Immediately after the vote, Republican Sen. Beau McCoy, who was against the ban, announced the formation of Nebraskans for Justice to start a petition drive to get reinstatement on the ballot in November.

But this was the third time the legislature voted to repeal capital punishment, which Republicans against it said no longer held to the values of their party, be it morally or fiscally. "The taxpayers have not gotten the bang for their buck on this death penalty for almost 20 years," said Sen. Colby Coash, a Republican and death penalty opponent. "This program is broken. How many years will people stand up and say we need this?"

Other senators said they philosophically support the death penalty, but were convinced legal obstacles would prevent the state from carrying out another execution ever again. The last one in Nebraska was a 1997 electrocution. The state lost its practical ability to execute inmates in December 2013, when one of the three lethal injection drugs required by state law expired. Opponents charged that it was a poorly managed and inefficient government program.

May 31, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sentencing message sent: blazing a Silk Road for drugs gets you LWOP

Images (10)A high-profile prosecution of a high-tech drug dealer culminated on Friday with the sentencing of Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht.  This Wired story provides an effective account of the sentencing, and includes these excerpts:

On Friday Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for his role in creating and running Silk Road’s billion-dollar, anonymous black market for drugs. Judge Katherine Forrest gave Ulbricht the most severe sentence possible, beyond what even the prosecution had explicitly requested. The minimum Ulbricht could have served was 20 years.

“The stated purpose [of the Silk Road] was to be beyond the law. In the world you created over time, democracy didn’t exist. You were captain of the ship, the Dread Pirate Roberts,” she told Ulbricht as she read the sentence, referring to his pseudonym as the Silk Road’s leader. “Silk Road’s birth and presence asserted that its…creator was better than the laws of this country. This is deeply troubling, terribly misguided, and very dangerous.”

In addition to his prison sentence, Ulbricht was also ordered to pay a massive restitution of more than $183 million, what the prosecution had estimated to be the total sales of illegal drugs and counterfeit IDs through the Silk Road—at a certain bitcoin exchange rate—over the course of its time online. Any revenue from the government sale of the bitcoins seized from the Silk Road server and Ulbricht’s laptop will be applied to that debt.

Ulbricht had stood before the court just minutes earlier in navy blue prison clothes, pleading for a lenient sentence. “I’ve changed. I’m not the man I was when I created Silk Road,” he said, as his voice grew hoarse with emotion and cracked. “I’m a little wiser, a little more mature, and much more humble.”

“I wanted to empower people to make choices in their lives…to have privacy and anonymity,” Ulbricht told the judge. “I’m not a sociopathic person trying to express some inner badness.”

Ulbricht’s sentencing likely puts the final seal on the saga of Silk Road, the anarchic underground market the 31-year-old Texan created in early 2011. At its peak, the Dark Web site grew to a sprawling smorgasbord of every narcotic imaginable — before Ulbricht was arrested in a public library in San Francisco in October of 2013. Eighteen months later, he was convicted in a Manhattan court on seven felony charges, including conspiracies to traffic in narcotics and launder money, as well as a “kingpin” charge usually reserved for the leaders of organized crime groups....

Ulbricht’s defense team has already said it will seek an appeal in his case. That call for a new trial will be based in part on recent revelations that two Secret Service and Drug Enforcement Administration agents involved in the investigation of the Silk Road allegedly stole millions of dollars of bitcoin from the site. One of the agents is even accused of blackmailing Ulbricht, and of allegedly selling him law enforcement information as a mole inside the DEA. But the judge in Ulbricht’s case ruled that those Baltimore-based agents weren’t involved in the New York FBI-led investigation that eventually took down the Silk Road, preventing their alleged corruption from affecting Ulbricht’s fate.

Speaking to press after the sentencing, Ulbricht’s lead attorney Joshua Dratel said that Forrest’s sentence was “unreasonable, unjust, unfair and based on improper consideration with no basis in fact or law.” He added: “I’m disappointed tremendously.”

In emotional statements at the hearing, the parents of drug users who had overdosed and died from drugs purchased from the Silk Road called for a long sentence for Ulbricht. “I strongly believe my son would still be alive today if Mr. Ulbricht had never created Silk Road,” said one father whose 25-year old son had died from an overdose of heroin, requesting “the most severe sentence the law will allow.”

In the weeks leading up to his sentencing hearing, Ulbricht’s defense team attempted to lighten his punishment with arguments about his motives and character, as well as emphasizing the Silk Road’s positive effect on its drug-using customers. In more than a hundred letters, friends, family, and even fellow inmates pointed to Ulbricht’s idealism and lack of a criminal history. And the defense argued that Silk Road had actually reduced harm in the drug trade by ensuring the purity of the drugs sold on the site through reviews and ratings, hosting discussions on “safe” drug use, and giving both buyers and sellers an avenue to trade in narcotics while avoiding the violence of the streets.

But the prosecution countered that any protection the Silk Road offered drug users was dwarfed by the increased access it offered to dangerous and addictive drugs. And beyond the two parents who spoke at the Friday hearing, it pointed to six individuals who it claimed had died of drug overdoses from drugs purchased on the Silk Road.

In her statement preceding Ulbricht’s sentencing, Judge Forrest fully sided with the prosecution against the defense’s “harm reduction” argument, arguing that the Silk Road vastly expanded access to drugs. “Silk Road was about fulfilling demand, and it was about creating demand,” she said. “It was market-expanding.”

She also tore into the argument that the Silk Road reduced violence in the drug trade, pointing out that most of the academic papers submitted by the defense to support that argument focused only on the protection for the final buyer of drugs. But that digital remove, she argued, did nothing to prevent violence at any other point in the narcotics supply chain, from production to distribution. “The idea that it’s harm reducing is so very narrow,” she said. “It’s…about a privileged group, sitting in their own homes, with their high speed internet connections.”

The Justice Department also argued in their letter to Judge Forrest that Ulbricht should be made an example of to stop even more Dark Web market kingpins from following in his footsteps. After all, dozens of copycat sites and advancements on the Silk Road market model have sprouted in the years since its takedown, including the Silk Road 2, Evolution, and the currently largest Dark Web black market to survive law enforcement’s attacks, Agora. To combat the spread of those anonymous bazaars, prosecutors asked Judge Forrest to “send a clear message” with a sentence for Ulbricht well beyond the mandatory minimum.

Judge Forrest sided with the prosecution on that point, too, arguing that she needed to create a strong deterrent for the next Dread Pirate Roberts. “For those considering stepping into your shoes…they need to understand without equivocation that there will be severe consequences,” Forrest said.

The defense’s arguments about Ulbricht’s character and his idealistic motives were also undercut by accusations that Ulbricht had paid for the murder of six people, including a potential informant and a blackmailer. Those accusations never became formal charges in Ulbricht’s case — five out of six of the murder-for-hires appear to have been part of a lucrative scam targeting Ulbricht, with no actual victims.

But those murder accusations nonetheless deeply colored Ulbricht’s trial, and strongly influenced his sentence. “I find there is ample and unambiguous evidence that [Ulbricht] commissioned five murders to protect his commercial enterprise,” Forrest said, leaving out one alleged attempted murder for which Ulbricht was charged in a different case.

With those attempted murders as context, Forrest was merciless in her assessment of Ulbricht’s seeming multiple personalities: the altruistic and admirable young man described in the letters sent to her as evidence of his character, versus the callous drug lord she saw in his actions. “People are very complicated, and you are one of them,” she said simply. “There is good in you, Mr. Ulbricht. There is also bad. And what you did with the Silk Road was terribly destructive.”

May 31, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

US District Judge John Gleeson finds extraordinary circumstances to order expungement of old federal fraud conviction

20-1n004-gleeson-c-ta-300x300Regular readers are likely to recall the remarkable series of opinions issued by US District Judge John Gleeson in recent years in which the judge has forcefully expressed deep concerns with how federal prosecutors sometimes exercise their charging and bargaining powers in the application of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Now I have learned, thanks to this great new Margy Love post at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, that Judge Gleeson's latest opinion examines the collateral workplace consequences of an old federal fraud conviction in the course of ordering expungement. Here is how the must-read opinion in Doe v. US, No. 14-MC-1412 (EDNY May 21, 2015) (available here), starts and ends:

Jane Doe filed an application on October 30, 2014, asking me to expunge her thirteen-year old fraud conviction because of the undue hardship it has created for her in getting — and especially keeping — jobs.  Doe gets hired to fill home health aide and similar positions only to be fired when her employers learn through subsequent background checks about her conviction.  Since the conviction was for health care fraud, it’s hard to blame those employers for using the conviction as a proxy for Doe’s unsuitability.

However, even if one believes, as I do, that employers are generally entitled to know about the past convictions of job applicants, and that their decisions based on those convictions are entitled to deference, there will nevertheless be cases in which all reasonable employers would conclude that the conviction is no longer a meaningful consideration in determining suitability for employment if only they had the time and the resources to conduct a thorough investigation of the applicant or employee.

I have conducted such an investigation, and this is one of those cases.  In addition to presiding over the trial in Doe’s case and her subsequent sentencing, I have reviewed every page of the extensive file that was created during her five years under probation supervision.  I conclude that the public’s interest in Doe being an employed, contributing member of society so far outweighs its interest in her conviction being a matter of public record that the motion is granted and her conviction is expunged....

Doe is one of 65 million Americans who have a criminal record and suffer the adverse consequences that result from such a record. Her case highlights the need to take a fresh look at policies that shut people out from the social, economic, and educational opportunities they desperately need in order to reenter society successfully.

The seemingly automatic refusals by judges to expunge convictions when the inability to find employment is the “only” ground for the application have undervalued the critical role employment plays in re-entry. They are also increasingly out of step with public opinion. The so-called “ban the box” practice, in which job applications no longer ask the applicant whether he or she has been convicted of a crime, is becoming more prevalent. There is an increasing awareness that continuing to marginalize people like Doe does much more harm than good to our communities.

Accordingly, Doe’s application for an order expunging her conviction is granted. It is hereby ordered that the government’s arrest and conviction records, and any other documents relating to this case, be placed in a separate storage facility, and that any electronic copies of these records or documents and references to them be deleted from the government’s databases, electronic filing systems, and public record. Doe’s real name is to be removed from any official index or public record. It is further ordered that the records are not to be opened other than in the course of a bona fide criminal investigation by law enforcement authorities and only when necessary for such an investigation. The government and any of its agents may not use these records for any other purpose, nor may their contents be disseminated to anyone, public or private, for any other purpose.

Finally with respect to the relief granted here, I welcome the input of the parties. My intention is clear: no inquiry of the federal or state government by a prospective employer should result in the disclosure of Doe’s conviction. Effectuating that intent without unduly burdening those governments or impairing their legitimate law enforcement interests is not so clear, at least not to me. Thus I welcome any proposed modifications to the relief set forth above, and of course any such proposals by the government would not be regarded as a waiver of its opposition to my decision to expunge the conviction.

It will be interesting to see how the Justice Department responds to this decision, and also how the Second Circuit will consider this matter if (when?) the feds appeal.

May 28, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Time magazine devotes cover story to "Why the End of Capital Punishment Is Near"

Death-penalty-final-coverI am intrigued to see that the new issue of Time magazine has a cover picture of an empty electric chair and this text: "The Last Execution: Why the Era of Capital Punishment is ending." Here are excerpts from the magazine's lead article:

Despite extraordinary efforts by the courts and enormous expense to taxpayers, the modern death penalty remains slow, costly and uncertain. For the overwhelming majority of condemned prisoners, the final step—that last short march with the strap-down team—will never be taken. The relative few who are killed continue to be selected by a mostly random cull. Tsarnaev aside, the tide is turning on capital punishment in the U.S., as previously supportive judges, lawmakers and politicians come out against it.

Change is not coming quickly or easily. Americans have stuck with grim determination to the idea of the ultimate penalty even as other Western democracies have turned against it. On this issue, our peer group is not Britain and France; it’s Iran and China. Most U.S. states authorize the death penalty, although few of them actually use it. We value tolerance and ­diversity — but certain outrages we will not put up with. Maybe it’s the teenage terrorist who plants a bomb near an 8-year-old boy. Maybe it’s a failed neuroscientist who turns a Colorado movie theater into an abattoir. We like to think we know them when we see them. Half a century of inconclusive legal wrangling over the process for choosing the worst of the worst says otherwise....

Even in Texas, which leads the nation in executions since 1976 (when the U.S. Supreme Court approved the practice after a brief moratorium), the wheels are coming off the bandwagon. From a peak of 40 executions in 2000, the Lone Star State put 10 prisoners to death last year and seven so far in 2015. According to the state’s Department of Corrections, the number of new death sentences imposed by Texas courts this year is precisely zero. There, as elsewhere, prosecutors, judges and jurors are concluding that the modern death penalty is a failed experiment.

The shift is more pragmatic than moral, as Americans realize that our balky system of state-sanctioned killing simply isn’t fixable. As a leader of the Georgia Republican Party, attorney David J. Burge, recently put it, “Capital punishment runs counter to core conservative principles of life, fiscal responsibility and limited government. The reality is that capital punishment is nothing more than an expensive, wasteful and risky government program.”

This unmistakable trend dates back to the turn of the century. The number of inmates put to death in 2014 was the fewest in 20 years, while the number of new death sentences imposed by U.S. courts — 72 — was the fewest in modern American history, according to data collected by the Death Penalty Information Center. Only one state, Missouri, has accelerated its rate of executions during that period, but even in the Show Me State, the number of new sentences has plunged.

Thirty-two states allow capital punishment for the most heinous crimes. And yet in most of the country, the penalty is now hollow. Since the start of 2014, all but two of the nation’s 49 executions have been carried out by just five states: Texas, Missouri, Florida, Oklahoma and Georgia.

Accompanying this coverr story are these two commentaries for and against capital punishment:

Why The Death Penalty Should Live: If you take lives, yours can be taken

Why the Death Penalty Should Die: Killing killers won't bring back victims

May 28, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Nebraska legislature, with every vote counting, repeals death penalty by overriding Gov veto

As reported in this local article, the "death penalty has been repealed in Nebraska."  Here is how:

In a historic vote Wednesday, senators voted 30-19 to override a veto from Gov. Pete Ricketts. The bill (LB268) had passed a week ago on a 32-15 vote. 

Ricketts had worked hard in the last week to get senators to flip their votes.  He needed three to change their minds, but only two -- Sens. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo and John Murante of Gretna -- changed their votes to sustain the veto.

"This is it," said Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha as he entered the legislative chamber to begin the debate on a motion to override the veto.  Chambers has offered a bill to repeal the death penalty 40 times in his tenure of the Legislature.  In 1979, Chambers won legislative approval of death penalty repeal, but the bill fell victim to a veto by Gov. Charles Thone.

Nebraska lawmakers debated more than two hours Wednesday on a motion to override Gov. Pete Ricketts' veto of a death penalty repeal bill.  "Once we take this step, there is not going to be a falling apart of this state," Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers said at the start of discussion on the floor of the Legislature.  "This building will not implode."

The historic significance of the event attracted a large group of onlookers, legislative staffers and media watched as debate began at 1:30 p.m....  Miriam Thimm Kelle, sister of Rulo murder victim James Thimm, was among onlookers in the legislative chamber Wednesday.  Thimm's murderer, Michael Ryan, died this week on death row.  Kelle has lobbied in support of abolishing the death penalty.

On Tuesday, Vivian Tuttle, whose daughter Evonne Tuttle was killed in the Norfolk bank robbery, joined the governor at a press conference to ask senators to sustain the veto. "I want justice for my grandchildren," she said. "I want justice for all the other families."

May 27, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Split Connecticut Supreme Court applies Miller retroactively to 50-year discretionary juve sentence

Yesterday the Connecticut Supreme Court, splitting 4-3, gave the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence concerning juvenile LWOP sentencing the furthest reach of any major ruling I have seen through its opinion in Casiano v. Commissioner of Correction, No. SC19345 (Conn. May 26, 2015) (majority opinion here, dissents here and here).  Here is how the majority opinion gets started:  

We recently held in State v. Riley, 315 Conn. 637, 659, A.3d (2015), that, to comport with the eighth amendment to the federal constitution, the trial court must give mitigating weight to the youth related factors set forth in Miller v. Alabama, U.S. , 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2464–65, 2468, 183 L.Ed. 2d 407 (2012), when considering whether to impose a life sentence without the possibility of parole on a juvenile homicide offender.  In Riley, the defendant challenged on direct appeal a total effective sentence of 100 years with no possibility of parole before his natural life expired, a sentence that the state conceded was the functional equivalent to life without parole.  State v. Riley, supra, 642. The different procedural posture and sentence in the present case raises two significant issues regarding the reach of Miller: whether Miller applies retroactively under Connecticut law to cases arising on collateral review, and, if so, whether Miller applies to the imposition of a fifty year sentence on a juvenile offender.  We answer both questions in the affirmative and, therefore, reverse the habeas court’s decision rendering summary judgment in favor of the respondent, the Commissioner of Correction, on the petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed by the petitioner, Jason Casiano.

May 27, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"Implementing Just Mercy"

The title of this post is thew title of this notable new piece authored by William Berry III now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This book review essay explores the connection between Bryan Stevenson's recent book, "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption", and the development of concepts of individualized sentencing under the Sixth and Eighth amendments by the Supreme Court.

In light of these steps toward individualizing sentencing, this book review essay imagines a serious application of the principles of just mercy that Stevenson has championed in his legal career to the criminal justice system.  Specifically, this essay argues that individualized consideration of criminal offenders throughout the criminal justice process — from policing to sentencing — is necessary to achieve the compatible (not competing) goals of justice and mercy.

The essay proceeds in three parts.  Part One describes Stevenson’s book, highlighting the principles of just mercy latent in his narrative and their connection to the individualized consideration of criminal offenders.  In Part Two, the essay shifts to argue that many of the current shortcomings of the criminal justice system result directly from stigmatizing alleged offenders rather than considering them individually as people possessing human dignity.  Finally, in Part Three, the essay outlines a series of criminal justice reforms drawn from Stevenson’s experiences and the concepts of individualized consideration that emerge from pursuing just mercy.

May 26, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

SCOTUS grants cert on a federal sentencing case and state capital case

This morning's Supreme Court order list, available here, includes two grants of certiorari.  Both cases are criminal cases, Lockhart v. US and Foster v. Humphrey, and here are the links to casepages and the issues via SCOTUSblog:

Lockhart v. US:  Whether the mandatory minimum sentence of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(2) 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," an issue that divides the federal courts of appeals.

Foster v. Humphrey: Whether the Georgia courts erred in failing to recognize race discrimination under Batson v. Kentucky in the extraordinary circumstances of this death penalty case.

May 26, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 24, 2015

"Before sentencing, Ulbricht begs for leniency: 'please leave me my old age'"

This new ars technica posting provides the title of this post and it provides background and links to a high-energy effort by a high-profile defendant to get a lower sentence for his high-tech drug dealing crimes for which he will be sentenced in the coming week.  Here are excerpts:

Convicted Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht and no less than 97 of his friends and family members have written to a judge just days prior to sentencing, asking her to impose the most lenient sentence possible. (Ars has posted the letters online along with the court filing of photos of Ulbricht and many family and friends.)

 Under federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, Ulbricht faces at least 20 years in prison and possibly as long as life behind bars.  “Silk Road turned out to be a very naive and costly idea that I deeply regret,” he wrote in his own 1.5 page letter to United States District Judge Katherine Forrest filed on Friday.

Ulbricht’s own letter marks the first time he has shown any public remorse during the entire saga, during which he did not testify. His attorney, Joshua Dratel, spun unsubstantiated theories that while Ulbricht created Silk Road, unnamed mysterious others took over the site and should be the ones prosecuted for the crime. Dratel previously vowed to appeal the verdict.

In February 2015, Ulbricht was convicted of seven charges including three drug counts: distributing or aiding and abetting the distribution of narcotics, distributing narcotics or aiding and abetting distribution over the Internet, and conspiracy to violate narcotics laws. He was also convicted on a fourth count of conspiracy to run a "continuing criminal enterprise," which involves supervising at least five other people in an organization. In addition, Ulbricht was convicted on conspiracy charges for computer hacking, distributing false identification, and money laundering.

Prior related posts:

May 24, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack