Sunday, January 26, 2014
Will Prez Obama mention sentencing reform in the State of the Union address?
Presidents traditionally use the annual State of the Union address to outline a planned legislative agenda and to articulate a perspective on national priorities. Consequently, in light of all the recent talk from Attorney General Holder and members of Congress about the need for federal sentencing reform, I will be extremely interested to see what Prez Obama might say (or not say) about sentencing reform when speaking to Congress this Tuesday.
This notable new commentary by Juliet Sorensen at The Atlantic, which is headlined "Why Obama Should Back Drug-Sentencing Reform in the State of the Union," highlights that I am not the only one now thinking about POTUS, SOTU and sentencing. Here are excerpts:
In the last week of 1963, my father, Ted Sorensen, met with President Lyndon Johnson late into the night at his Texas ranch to decide what provisions of President John F. Kennedy’s unfinished agenda to include in the upcoming State of the Union address. Last on the list was a provision for expanded federal jurisdiction over illegal drugs, which provided not only for federal criminal-law enforcement but also for expanded rehabilitation and treatment programs.
As my father recounted in his memoir, Johnson angrily brushed aside the suggestion. “Drugs? I don’t want to have anything to do with them. Just lock them up and throw away the key!” The meeting ended, and my father deleted that portion of the speech, which famously announced the War on Poverty — but kept the drug provision in Johnson’s legislative program. This led to controlled-substance and drug-addiction reform that passed with bipartisan support in Congress. Despite Johnson’s dismissal of my father’s proposal of treatment and rehabilitation, he extolled those ideas when he signed the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act into law in November 1966, describing it as a “pioneering measure” that recognizes that “treating addicts as criminals neither curtails addiction nor prevents crime.”
President Obama now has a golden opportunity in his own State of the Union to confront the U.S. government’s continued struggle to effectively legislate drugs. In a January 8 statement, Obama endorsed the very same priorities articulated in LBJ’s War on Poverty and catalogued exactly 50 years ago in Johnson’s own State of the Union address. This indicates that he will also focus on income inequality — 21st century lingo for entrenched poverty — in his speech on January 28. While a renewed commitment to tackling persistent poverty is laudable, Obama should also seize the moment to further another, related legislative aim of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations: reduced sentencing for drug-law violators who are nonviolent offenders....
Members of the bench and bar have come to recognize that mandatory minimums don’t always keep society safe or effectively punish every defendant. A bill in the Senate, co-sponsored by Senators Dick Durbin, a Democrat, and Mike Lee, a Republican, would capitalize on shifting opinions in Congress and the general public. The Smarter Sentencing Act (SSA) would reduce the mandatory-minimum penalties for many drug offenses and give federal judges more leeway to sentence nonviolent offenders with limited criminal histories below the high mandatory-minimum sentences. It would also reduce disparities between crack- and powder-cocaine offenders by making the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the gap between the amount of crack and powder cocaine needed to trigger certain penalties, retroactive. Support for the SSA from law enforcement, victims’ organizations, prosecutors, and judges has poured in, including a letter signed by more than 100 former judges and prosecutors, including me....
The Obama Administration has indicated it supports mandatory-minimum-sentencing reform. Tellingly, the president last month commuted the sentences of eight nonviolent drug offenders who would most likely have received significantly shorter terms if they had been sentenced under current drug laws, sentencing rules, and charging policies. Attorney General Eric Holder stated last August that legislation such as the SSA will “ultimately save our country billions of dollars while keeping us safe.” In an interview published in this week’s issue of The New Yorker, Obama acknowledged the disparate impact of drug laws on minorities, noting that “African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support” — in their families, in their schools, and in their communities — to avoid lengthy prison sentences for marijuana crimes, even as he acknowledged the “profound” social costs of drug trafficking.
A declaration of support for the SSA in his State of the Union Address — broadcast live and heard not only by Congress but approximately 50 million people around the world — would go far to create momentum and support for the bill and its goal of curbing unnecessarily harsh sentencing. In so doing, the president would put America back on the road paved by Kennedy and Johnson. My father, and the presidents he served, would be pleased.
Saturday, January 25, 2014
"Murder, Minority Victims, and Mercy"
The title of this post is the title of this interesting looking paper that just appears on SSRN and is authored by Aya Gruber. Here is the abstract:
Should the jury have acquitted George Zimmerman of murder? Should enraged husbands receive a pass for killing their cheating wives? Should the law treat a homosexual advance as adequate provocation for killing? Criminal law scholars generally answer these questions with a resounding “no.” Theorists argue that criminal laws should not reflect bigoted perceptions of African Americans, women, and gays by permitting judges and jurors to treat those who kill racial and gender minorities with undue mercy. According to this view, murder defenses like provocation should be restricted to ensure that those who kill minority victims receive the harshest sanctions available. Equality is thus achieved by ratcheting up punishment.
There is a similar bias in assessment of the death penalty, where those who kill racial minorities are treated more leniently than those who kill whites and are often spared execution. But the typical liberal response here is to call for abolition rather than more frequent executions. Equality is thus achieved by ratcheting down punishment.
This article asserts that the divergence between the accepted scholarly positions on the provocation defense and capital punishment can be explained by provocation critics’ choice to concentrate on spectacular individual instances of leniency toward those who kill gender minorities and death penalty theorists’ tendency to view the entire institution of capital punishment as racist and retrograde. The article then provides the institutional sketch of noncapital murder law currently missing from provocation analysis by discussing sentencing practices, the demographic composition of murder defendants, and the provocation defense’s potential role as a safety valve. It concludes that inserting institutional analysis into the critical assessment of provocation might undermine the prevailing scholarly dogma supporting pro-prosecution reform.
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Florida prisons struggling with extra costs of a hearty appetite for religion
This new New York Times article, headlined "You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Love a Kosher," highlights the extra costs of respecting religious freedoms for the incarcerated. Here are excerpts:
Florida is now under a court order to begin serving kosher food to eligible inmates, a routine and court-tested practice in most states. But state prison officials expressed alarm recently over the surge in prisoners, many of them gentiles, who have stated an interest in going kosher.
Their concern: The cost of religious meals is four times as much as the standard fare, said Michael D. Crews, who is expected to be confirmed as secretary of the Department of Corrections in March. “The last number I saw Monday was 4,417,” Mr. Crews said of inmate requests at his recent confirmation hearing before a State Senate committee. “Once they start having the meals, we could see the number balloon.”...
Kosher food in prisons has long served as fodder for lawsuits around the country, with most courts coming down firmly on the side of inmates. As long as inmates say they hold a sincere belief in Judaism — a deeply forgiving standard — they are entitled to kosher meals, even if takes a little chutzpah to make the request.
“Florida is an outlier,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has represented inmates around the country. “It’s a holdout. I don’t know why it’s being a holdout. It is strange that Florida, of all places, is placing a special burden on Jewish inmates. It’s just stubbornness.”
In Florida’s prison system. which faces a $58 million deficit, money is the easy answer for the battle against kosher food. The cost of three kosher meals in Florida is $7 a day, a big jump from the $1.54 for standard meals, Mr. Crews said. In New York State, where 1,500 inmates out of about 56,000 keep kosher, the cost of a kosher meal is $5 a person. In California, where some prisons have kosher kitchens, the price tag is $8, and the meals are served to 0.7 percent of about 120,000 inmates.
Last April, facing an inmate lawsuit, Florida began a pilot program for the religious diet at Union Correctional Facility near Jacksonville. Initially, some 250 inmates signed up, Mr. Crews said. But once other inmates spied the individually boxed lunches, 863 expressed a sudden interest in keeping kosher....
But the question of who gets a kosher meal is tricky. In all, less than 1.5 percent of the country’s 1.9 million inmates are Jewish, according to the Aleph Institute, a social services organization, and many do not even request kosher meals. “Who is a Jew?” Mr. Rassbach said. “People disagree about who is a Jew.”
The courts steer clear of that perilous debate. Instead, inmates need only say they have a “sincerely held” religious belief. Attempts by prison officials and rabbis to quiz prisoners about the Torah and the rules of keeping kosher were ruled not kosher. Tracing maternal lineage was similarly viewed unfavorably.... Some states, like New York, do nothing to try to discern who is feigning Jewishness. In California, inmates talk with a rabbi who will gauge, very generally, a prisoner’s actual interest.
But some Jewish groups in Florida are pushing for greater control, which may pose a difficult legal hurdle. “There should be away to ascertain who really does require a kosher meal for their religious belief,” said Rabbi Menachem M. Katz, director of prison and military outreach for the Aleph Institute in South Florida, “and who is just gaming the system.”
Monday, January 20, 2014
Fittingly for MLK day, Prez Obama laments class and race disparities from pot prohibition
I am intrigued and pleased to see that the New Yorker has just released this very lengthy article profiling President Obama that has a very interesting small section with quotes from the President concerning modern marijuana policies and reform. Though I expect to cover various aspects of what Prez Obama said a lot more over at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform in the week ahead, these comments should be of special interest to sentencing fans:
What clearly does trouble him is the radically disproportionate arrests and incarcerations for marijuana among minorities. “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” he said. “And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.” But, he said, “we should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.” Accordingly, he said of the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington that “it’s important for it to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.”
As is his habit, he nimbly argued the other side. “Having said all that, those who argue that legalizing marijuana is a panacea and it solves all these social problems I think are probably overstating the case. There is a lot of hair on that policy. And the experiment that’s going to be taking place in Colorado and Washington is going to be, I think, a challenge.”
As the title of this post highlights, I think it is valuable and fitting that news of the President of the United States making these points hits the papers on the weekend we honor the work and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. As students of history know, Dr. King was concerned about economic inequallity as well as racial inequality, and I think the stories of modern pot prohiibition reflect both. More broadly, as I highlight in a new post over at my other blog, titled MLK marijuana mash-up: "I Have A Dream..." we are free at last from pot prohibition, I think MLK's most famous exhortations about freedom and equality are useful to consider at this unique moment of marijuana reform debates.
Some related recent posts (mostly from MLPR):
- Is pot already really legal for middle-aged white folks?
- Do (and should) marijuana reform advocates consider themselves civil rights activists like MLK?
- Did Louisiana really give Corey Ladd "20 years hard labor" for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana?
- The Nation talks up "Dope and Change" and explains "Why It’s Always Been Time to Legalize Marijuana"
Saturday, January 18, 2014
After new revelations, should every defendant ever sentenced by Judge Cebull seek resentencing?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP report headlined " "Federal judge sent hundreds of bigoted emails," which is a summary of this lengthy report released on Friday by the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability of the Judicial Conference of the United States. Here are the basics:
A former Montana judge who was investigated for forwarding a racist email involving President Barack Obama sent hundreds of other inappropriate messages from his federal email account, according to the findings of a judicial review panel released Friday.
Former U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull sent emails to personal and professional contacts that showed disdain for blacks, Indians, Hispanics, women, certain religious faiths, liberal political leaders, and some emails contained inappropriate jokes about sexual orientation, the Judicial Council of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found.
Many of the emails also related to pending issues that could have come before Cebull's court, such as immigration, gun control, civil rights, health care and environmental issues, the council found in its March 15, 2013, order. The investigation looked at four years of Cebull's personal correspondence sent from his official email account. Investigators also reviewed his past cases and interviewed witnesses.
The investigation found no evidence of bias in Cebull's rulings or sentences, and the witnesses generally regarded him as a "good and honest trial lawyer, and an esteemed trial judge," according to the report.
The 9th Circuit council issued Cebull a public reprimand; ordered no new cases be assigned to him for 180 days; ordered him to complete training on judicial ethics, racial awareness and elimination of bias; and ordered him to issue a second public apology that would acknowledge "the breadth of his behavior." The panel said impeachment was not warranted because Cebull did not violate federal or state law, though two of the judges on the council said they would have asked for his resignation.
But none of the sanctions took effect and the findings did not become public until Friday on the order of a national judicial review panel. Cebull announced his resignation March 29, two weeks after the judicial council issued its order. After Cebull retired May 3, the 9th Circuit council vacated its previous order and wrote a new one calling the complaints against Cebull "moot" because of his retirement....
Cebull himself and 10 others requested the misconduct investigation after The Great Falls Tribune reported Cebull forwarded an email in February 2012 that included a joke about bestiality and Obama's mother. Cebull apologized to Obama after the contents of the email were published. He told the 9th Circuit panel that his "public shaming has been a life-altering experience" and that he was "acutely aware that each day in my court is the most important day in someone's life."
Cebull was nominated by former President George W. Bush and received his commission in 2001. He served as chief judge of the District of Montana from 2008 until 2013.
I am quite surprised to hear that Judge Cebull sent so many inappropriate e-mail from his chambers, though I am not at all surprised that an investigation by other judges reached the (self-serving) conclusion that there was "no evidence of bias in Cebull's rulings or sentences." In my view, any defendant (especially any female or minority defendant) still sitting in federal prison unhappy with a past sentencing decision made by Judge Cebull could and should use this new report to at least request a focused review of any of his specific sentencing outcomes.
Prior related posts (from 2012) concerning Cebull controversy:
- Should Congress investigate federal judge who forwarded racially charged email about President Obama?
- Apologies, inquiries and calls for resignation involving Chief Judge Cebull
- "Blinded by the Hate: The Real Problem With Judge Cebull's Email"
- NY Times editorial calls for Chief Judge Cebull to resign over email incident
Friday, December 27, 2013
"White man charged with 'knockout game' hate crime. Racial hypocrisy?"
Folks on this blog (myself included) often discuss and debate the impact of racial issues, federalism and prosecutorial discretion on the operation of our nation's criminal justice systems. Consequently, this new Christian Science Monitor article with the same headline of this post just caught my eye as blogworthy. Here is the article's subheading: "The Obama administration's decision to charge a white man with a hate crime for allegedly punching a black man as part of the knockout game has led to criticism that it is applying the law unevenly." And here is more from the piece:
The US Department of Justice on Thursday stepped into the cultural fray about the so-called “knockout game” when it brought federal hate crime charges against a white Texas man for assaulting an unsuspecting black man.
The decision shines a brighter spotlight on the knockout game, in which an assailant tries to knock out a bystander with a single punch. A spate of incidents have gathered national attention in recent months, though it is unclear whether the game has become more popular or whether the Internet has simply allowed for isolated incidents to be broadcast more widely.
The majority of the reported incidents, however, have involved black men targeting white victims – and none triggered federal involvement. The fact that the Justice Department has elected to step in now, when a black man was the victim, has led to criticism among conservative pundits that the Obama administration is applying the hate-crime statute unevenly....
Conrad Barrett was arrested Thursday and charged under federal hate crimes law, which defines a hate crime as “motivated by enmity or animus against a protected class.” (The Federal Bureau of Investigation also lists anti-white crimes as hate crimes.)...
Federal prosecutors say Mr. Barrett planned the Nov. 24 attack, which he filmed with his cellphone. He approached “G.C.”, an elderly black man, and said, “How’s it going, man?” then punched him so hard that G.C.'s jaw was broken in two places and he lost three teeth. Barrett then allegedly cried “knockout!” and ran.
He was caught after he told the tale at a bar, where an off-duty cop was present. Federal prosecutors argue that the attack was motivated by racial animus because police uncovered videos where Barrett allegedly used racial epithets and at one point said that black people “haven’t fully experienced the blessing of evolution.” In another video from the day of the assault, Barrett says, “If I were to hit a black person, would this be nationally televised?”
A single hate crime charge carries a maximum of 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.
Some conservative bloggers see racial hypocrisy in the charges. “This case shows how warped law enforcement has gotten as a result of hate crime legislation,” writes Rick Moran on the American Thinker blog. “No matter who is in charge, the law will always be selectively enforced. It makes a mockery of the notion of equal justice under the law.”
Concern about the game has percolated within the black community. This fall, several black leaders, including Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, spoke out about the knockout game and warned black parents, in particular, about the consequences for dangerous behavior by their kids.
Hate crime charges have been brought this year against one black suspect accused of playing the knockout game, but they were state charges brought by New York in the case of a knocked-out Jewish man.
For his part, Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, is not convinced that knockout game attacks are growing. He argues in an upcoming journal article that racially fueled knockout attacks are in the news is because they’ve actually become rarer than in the past, so they are more notable. The 1990s, he says, had far more reports of so-called “thrill hate crimes” -- think white teenagers beating up homeless men....
According to FBI hate crime statistics, 22 percent of the 3,297 reported racially motivated hate crimes in 2012 were anti-white, while 66 percent were anti-black. (Others included anti-Pacific Islander and anti-Alaskan native attacks.) The Justice Department insisted Thursday that it does not discriminate in how it makes decisions on hate crime charges. “Suspected crimes of this nature will simply not be tolerated,” said US Attorney Kenneth Magidson of the Southern District of Texas. “Evidence of hate crimes will be vigorously investigated and prosecuted with the assistance of all our partners to the fullest extent of the law.”
Especially in light of the fact that "thrill" beatings are likely always to be localized assaults and that such crimes may actually be declining even as media reports about them increased, I am inclined to criticize the feds for getting involved at all before I will express concerns about racial disparities in how local federal prosecutors decide to bring hate-crime federal charges. More broadly, to the extent that a lot of federal involvement in state matters has often been justified by a concerns that southern courts have in the past been much more concerned about white victim than black ones, the fact that the feds have gotten involved in a case like this in Texas (perhaps after state authorities were slow to respond) involving a younger hoodlum going after elderly man, makes me hesitant to throw around labels like racial hypocrisy until I had more detailed information about why prosecutors moved forward with federal charges in this case but not in others.
That all said, this case and the reaction thereto provides further support for my belief that everyone tends to favor a potent federal criminal justice system and unregulated federal prosecutorial discretion unless and until the feds start using their broad powers in ways that a particular group dislikes.
Saturday, December 21, 2013
"If our prisons were a country, what would Incarceration Nation look like?"
The title of this post is the headline of this fascinating commentary by lawprof Rosa Brooks, which merits a read in full. Here are just a few highlights from a very interesting piece:
You already know that the United States locks up a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world. If you look at local, state and federal prison and jail populations, the United States currently incarcerates more than 2.4 million people, a figure that constitutes roughly 25 percent of the total incarcerated population of the entire world.
A population of 2.4 million is a lot of people -- enough, in fact, to fill up a good-sized country. In the past, the British Empire decided to convert a good chunk of its prison population into a country, sending some 165,000 convicts off to Australia. This isn't an option for the United States, but it suggests an interesting thought experiment: If the incarcerated population of the United States constituted a nation-state, what kind of country would it be?
Here's a profile of Incarceration Nation:
Population size: As a country -- as opposed to a prison system -- Incarceration Nation is on the small side. Nonetheless, a population of 2.4 million is perfectly respectable: Incarceration Nation has a larger population than about 50 other countries, including Namibia, Qatar, Gambia, Slovenia, Bahrain and Iceland....
Population Density: No matter how you look at it, Incarceration Nation is a crowded place. If we assume a land area of 2,250 square miles, it has a population density of roughly 1,067 people per square mile, a little higher than that of India. Of course, the residents of Incarceration Nation don't have access to the full land-area constituting their nation: most of them spend their days in small cells, often sharing cells built for one or two prisoners with two or three times that many inmates....
A nation of immigrants: Like many of the smaller Gulf States, Incarceration Nation relies almost entirely on immigration to maintain its population. You might even say that Incarceration Nation is a nation of displaced persons: most of its residents were born far away from Incarceration Nation, which has a nasty habit of involuntarily transporting people hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away from their home communities, making it extraordinarily difficult for residents to maintain ties with their families. In New York, for instance, one study found that "70 percent of incarcerated individuals are in prisons over 100 miles from their homes" -- often in "isolated rural areas that are inaccessible by direct bus or train routes."...
Gender balance: International attention to gender imbalances has tended to focus on China, India and other states, but Incarceration Nation has the most skewed gender ratio of any country on Earth: men outnumber women by a ratio of about 12 to 1.
Racial and ethnic makeup: If Incarceration Nation were located in a geographical region matching its racial and ethnic makeup, it would probably be somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, perhaps near Brazil. Roughly 40 percent of the incarcerated population is of African descent, another 20 percent is of Hispanic descent, and the remaining 40 percent are Caucasian or mixed....
Health: Incarceration Nation doesn't do so well here. One recent study found that the incarcerated are "more likely to be afflicted with infectious disease and other illnesses associated with stress."...
Per Capita Spending: Judged by per capita government spending, Incarceration Nation is a rich country: its government spends an average of about $31,000 per year on each incarcerated citizen. (State by state, costs vary. Kentucky and Indiana spend less than $15,000 on each inmate per year, while in New York State, the per capita cost per inmate is more than $60,000 a year. In New York City, per capita costs for jail inmates reach an astronomical $168,000 per year.) Internationally, only little Luxembourg spends as much on its citizens as Incarceration Nation; among the generally wealthy states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, average per capita spending is under $15,000, and Sweden, France, Germany, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom all spend under $20,000 per year on each citizen.
Gross Domestic Product: Incarceration Nation doesn't have a GDP, per se, but that doesn't mean it doesn't turn a profit -- sometimes, and for some people. For American taxpayers, aid to Incarceration Nation is pretty expensive: looking at just 40 U.S. states, the Vera Institute of Justice found that the cost to taxpayers of incarceration in these states was $39 billion. Overall, federal and state governments spend an estimated $74 billion on prisons each year. (This doesn't count spending on state and local jails.) How much is $74 billion? It's higher than the GDP of more than half the countries in the world, including Lebanon, Paraguay, Nepal and Lithuania.
Some people make a lot of money from Incarceration Nation. Incarceration Nation employs about 800,000 people as prison guards, administrators and the like -- almost as many people as are employed in the entire U.S. automobile industry -- and in some rural areas, prisons are the main employers. But the real money goes to the operators of private prisons and the companies that make use of prison labor.
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court suggests gender is important consideration for placement on state sex offender registry
This AP article, headlined "Mass. court overturns escort's sex offender label," reports on a very interesting ruling today by the top state court in Massachusetts. Here are the basics:
The state’s highest court on Wednesday overturned the classification of a former escort service manager as a low-level sex offender, finding that the state’s Sex Offender Registry Board should have considered research showing women are less likely than men to commit new sex offenses.
The woman, who wasn’t identified in the court’s ruling, pleaded guilty in 2006 to federal charges stemming from her management of an escort service from 2000 to 2002, including one count of transporting a minor to engage in prostitution and one count of sex trafficking of children. She served 17 months in prison while awaiting trial before pleading guilty.
In 2008, the woman requested funds to hire an expert witness, arguing that the board’s guidelines didn’t encompass scientific research on female sex offenders. Her request was rejected by the board. A hearing officer eventually found that she should be classified as a level one sex offender, the lowest level of offender, considered the least likely to reoffend and the least dangerous....
In its ruling Wednesday, the SJC agreed with the woman that the hearing examiner abused his discretion by denying her request for funds for an expert witness who could testify on the subject of how infrequently female sex offenders commit new crimes when compared with men. "We conclude that it was arbitrary and capricious for (the board) to classify Doe’s risk of re-offense and degree of dangerousness without considering the substantial evidence presented at the hearing concerning the effect of gender on recidivism," Justice Barbara Lenk wrote for the court....
The court also said the board is required to ensure that its guidelines are based on "the available literature."
"We do not purport to suggest a frequency with which the guidelines must be updated, but caution that guidelines that fail to heed growing scientific consensus in an area may undercut the individualized nature of the hearing to which a sex offender is entitled, an important due process right," Lenk wrote.
I was able to access the full text of the opinion in Doe v. Sex Offender Registry Board, No. SJC-11328 (Mass. Dec. 11, 2013), at this link.
December 11, 2013 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack
Sunday, November 24, 2013
"'Cocaine congressman' received the right sentence"
The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary by Clarence Page appearing in the Chicago Tribune. Here are excerpts:
"Cocaine Congressman" Trey Radel, as headline writers have rebranded him, voted to allow states to drug test all food stamp recipients. Congress, it turns out, should have drug-tested Radel....
Radel became the first sitting congressman in 31 years, according to The Associated Press, to plead guilty to a misdemeanor drug-possession charge.
FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents swooped in to arrest him after he bought 3.5 grams of cocaine for $250 in a late October sting operation in Washington's fashionable DuPont Circle neighborhood. Charging documents described Radel as having a frequent-buyer reputation in the neighborhood. After Radel pleaded guilty in District of Columbia Superior Court, he was sentenced to a year of probation and will undergo substance abuse treatment in Florida.
House Republicans did not rush to escort Radel out the door, even though he reportedly waited three weeks before telling them about his bust. Speaker John Boehner said before Radel's sentencing that the matter should be left up to the courts, Radel, his family and his constituents.
Indeed, it would hardly be the first time that a politician continued to serve and potentially be re-elected after a misdemeanor conviction. Voters can be very forgiving of lawbreaking politicians.
"Today, I checked myself into a facility to seek treatment and counseling," Radel said in a statement last week. "It is my hope, through this process, I will come out a better man." I wish him luck. Unlike his more outraged critics, I don't think Radel should have been sent to jail. Quite the opposite, I think his case offers a good example of why a lot of nonviolent, first-arrest drug offenders shouldn't be in jail.
Contrast his case, for example, with another high-profile District of Columbia case, the arrest of then-Mayor Marion Barry for taking a hit of crack cocaine during an FBI hotel room sting in 1990. He was sentenced to six months in a federal prison. His sentence could have been worse if the video had not provided so much evidence to back the mayor's argument that he was a victim of FBI entrapment.
The fact that Barry is black and Radel is white doesn't mean that racism played a role in either case. But the differences in their sentences illustrate a persistent problem: Despite recent reforms, a racial disparity persists between the minimum sentences for crimes involving crack and powder cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act that Congress passed in August of 2010 reduced the 100-to-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine that was created during the anti-crack uproar of the 1980s. But it still remains way too huge at about 18-to-1. Fairness should never end at the color line.
Radel is fortunate to have been sentenced in D.C., where enlightened attitudes led to a special "drug court" in 1993 that is designed to funnel low-level addicts into rehab instead of long-term jail time. With prison costs skyrocketing — even after overall crime rates declined in the mid-1990s — even states with reputations for tough justice are turning to alternatives to prison for nonviolent drug offenders. Drug addiction should be handled as a disease, not a crime. Trey Radel knows.
Recent related post:
Thursday, November 21, 2013
"Have Inter-Judge Sentencing Disparities Increased in an Advisory Guidelines Regime? Evidence from Booker"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Crystal Yang now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were promulgated in response to concerns of widespread disparities in sentencing. After almost two decades of determinate sentencing, the Guidelines were rendered advisory in United States v. Booker. What has been the result of reintroducing greater judicial discretion on inter-judge disparities, or differences in sentencing outcomes that are attributable to the mere happenstance of the sentencing judge assigned?
This Article utilizes new data covering over 600,000 criminal defendants linked to sentencing judge to undertake the first national empirical analysis of interjudge disparities post Booker. The results are striking: inter-judge sentencing disparities have doubled since the Guidelines became advisory. Some of the recent increase in disparities can be attributed to differential sentencing behavior associated with judge demographic characteristics, with Democratic and female judges being more likely to exercise their enhanced discretion after Booker. Newer judges appointed after Booker also appear less anchored to the Guidelines than judges with experience sentencing under the mandatory Guidelines regime.
Disentangling the effect of various actors on sentencing disparities, I find that prosecutorial charging is a prominent source of disparities. Rather than charge mandatory minimums uniformly across eligible cases, prosecutors appear to selectively apply mandatory minimums in response to the identity of sentencing judge, potentially through superseding indictments. Drawing on this empirical evidence, the Article suggests that recent sentencing proposals that call for a reduction in judicial discretion in order to reduce disparities may overlook the substantial contribution of prosecutors.
Split Texas appeals court refuses to allow additional habeas action for death row defendant complaining about racialized testimony
As reported in this local article from Texas, that "state’s highest criminal court Wednesday dismissed an appeal by death row inmate Duane Buck, who claims his sentence is improper because it was based, in part, on a psychologist’s finding that he presents a greater danger to society because he is black." Here is more about the ruling and its context:
In a 6-3 ruling, the Court of Criminal Appeals said that Buck had already filed his one guaranteed appeal, known as a petition for writ of habeas corpus, in 1999 and wasn’t legally entitled to another.
But the court’s newest member, Judge Elsa Alcala, submitted a blistering dissent that said Buck had been ill-served by previous lawyers and the court system. “The record in this case reveals a chronicle of inadequate representation at every stage of the proceedings, the integrity of which is further called into question by the admission of racist and inflammatory testimony from an expert witness,” Alcala wrote in a dissenting statement joined by Judges Tom Price and Cheryl Johnson.
The upshot, Alcala said, is that no state or federal court has examined, let alone ruled on, Buck’s claim that his constitutional rights had been violated by the inclusion of inappropriate racial testimony and by the incompetence of previous lawyers. “This cannot be what the Legislature intended when it (voted in 1995 to provide) capital habeas litigants ‘one full and fair opportunity to present all claims in a single, comprehensive post-conviction writ of habeas corpus,’” Alcala wrote.
Though there is no question about Buck’s guilt — he gunned down a former girlfriend and her male friend, shot his stepsister and targeted a fourth adult in Houston — his case has become a rallying point for judicial reformers and civil rights advocates, largely because of its racial overtones at trial.
The controversy centers on punishment-phase testimony by psychologist Walter Quijano, a defense expert who told jurors that Buck was less likely to pose a future danger — and therefore not eligible for the death penalty — because the crime wasn’t a random act of violence. But Quijano also testified, unprompted, that “Hispanics and black people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system.” On cross-examination, a prosecutor followed up by asking Quijano if race, particularly being black, increases a defendant’s future dangerousness “for various complicated reasons.” Quijano replied, “Yes.”
Buck was sentenced to death in 1997. Three years later, however, then-state Attorney General John Cornyn, now a U.S. senator, acknowledged that seven death penalty convictions — including Buck’s — had been improperly influenced by Quijano’s testimony linking race to dangerousness. The attorney general’s office did not oppose new punishment trials for the other six inmates to cure the constitutional defect.
State lawyers later decided, however, to oppose a new trial for Buck, arguing that his case was “strikingly different” because Quijano was a defense expert whose questionable testimony was elicited by a defense lawyer. Instead, lawyers for Texas argued that Buck should have objected to the racial testimony in his 1999 habeas petition. Because he didn’t, Buck lost his chance to appeal the matter, they argued.
On Wednesday, the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed, dismissing Buck’s latest habeas petition as improper. In her dissent, Alcala said she would have accepted the new petition because Buck’s 1999 appeal was so poorly done that it amounted to no defense at all, depriving a death row inmate of a full review of constitutional claims before his execution.
Sunday, November 17, 2013
"Sentenced to a Slow Death"
The title of this post is the headline of this new New York Times editorial discussing this week's noteworthy new ACLU report on the thousands of persons serving LWOP sentences for non-violent offenses in the United States (first discussed here). Here are excerpts:
If this were happening in any other country, Americans would be aghast. A sentence of life in prison, without the possibility of parole, for trying to sell $10 of marijuana to an undercover officer? For sharing LSD at a Grateful Dead concert? For siphoning gas from a truck? The punishment is so extreme, so irrational, so wildly disproportionate to the crime that it defies explanation.
And yet this is happening every day in federal and state courts across the United States. Judges, bound by mandatory sentencing laws that they openly denounce, are sending people away for the rest of their lives for committing nonviolent drug and property crimes. In nearly 20 percent of cases, it was the person’s first offense.
As of 2012, there were 3,278 prisoners serving sentences of life without parole for such crimes, according to an extensive and astonishing report issued Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union. And that number is conservative. It doesn’t include inmates serving sentences of, say, 350 years for a series of nonviolent drug sales. Nor does it include those in prison for crimes legally classified as “violent” even though they did not involve actual violence, like failing to report to a halfway house or trying to steal an unoccupied car....
As in the rest of the penal system, the racial disparity is vast: in the federal courts, blacks are 20 times more likely than whites to be sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent crimes. The report estimates that the cost of imprisoning just these 3,278 people for life instead of a more proportionate length of time is $1.78 billion....
Several states are reforming sentencing laws to curb the mass incarceration binge. And Congress is considering at least two bipartisan bills that would partly restore to judges the power to issue appropriate sentences, unbound by mandatory minimums. These are positive steps, but they do not go far enough. As the report recommends, federal and state legislators should ban sentences of life without parole for nonviolent crimes, both for those already serving these sentences and in future cases. President Obama and state governors should also use executive clemency to commute existing sentences. Just one-fifth of all countries allow a sentence of life without parole, and most of those reserve it for murder or repeated violent crimes. If the United States is to call itself a civilized nation, it must end this cruel and ineffective practice.
Recent related posts:
- New ACLU report spotlights thousands of nonviolent prisoners serving LWOP terms
- New York Times op-ed asks "Serving Life for This?"
"Correcting a Fatal Lottery: a Proposal to Apply the Civil Discrimination Standards to the Death Penalty"
The title of this post is the title of this notable student note by Joseph Thomas now available for download via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Claims of discrimination in death penalty proceeding receive disparate treatment compared to virtually every other type of discrimination: employment, housing, jury venire, reverse-racial discrimination, racial profiling by police, racial profiling by private security, racial gerrymandering, qualified immunity by a state prison guard, qualified immunity by city officials and police, felon disenfranchisement laws. They each use the same process when there is no direct evidence of discrimination -- a burden shifting framework to help present the evidence in an organized manner with a standard of the preponderance of the evidence that must be demonstrated to prove discrimination took place. Dissimilarly, death penalty proceedings are the exception to the rule -- all of the evidence is presented in one stage, without any organization, and the heightened standard of exceptionally clear proof must be demonstrated to prove discrimination took place.
With the use of disparate standards to adjudicate the exact same thing -- claims of discrimination without direct evidence -- makes the process used in the death penalty unconstitutional because with life and liberty at stake, defendants in the death penalty should be afforded more protections, not less. Alternatively, I propose my own standard for handling discrimination cases in the death penalty, based off of the civil standards.
Saturday, November 16, 2013
Is pot already really legal for middle-aged white folks?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent New York Times commentary by Jim Dwyer headlined "A Marijuana Stash That Carried Little Risk." The piece is, I think, designed to complain about the impact and import of NYC stop-and-frisk policies, but my take-away is a bit distinct. Here are excerpts from the piece:
Walking down Eighth Avenue a few weeks ago, I made sure my backpack was fully zipped shut. Inside was a modest stash of pot, bought just an hour or so earlier. A friend knew someone in that world, and after an introduction, then a quiet, discreet meeting, I was on my way to the subway. Never before had I walked through Midtown Manhattan with it on my person. There were four cookies in vacuum-sealed pouches — “edibles” is the technical term — and then a few pinches of what was described as “herb.”
The innovations of Michael R. Bloomberg as mayor are legion, but his enforcement of marijuana laws has broken all records. More people have been arrested for marijuana possession than any other crime on the books. From 2002 through 2012, 442,000 people were charged with misdemeanors for openly displaying or burning 25 grams or less of pot.
I wasn’t sure about the weight of my stash — although a digital scale was used in the transaction, I didn’t see the display — but it didn’t feel too heavy. Still, I wasn’t about to openly display or burn it.
It turns out that there was little to fret over. While scores of people are arrested on these charges every day in New York, the laws apparently don’t apply to middle-aged white guys. Or at least they aren’t enforced against us.
“It is your age that would make you most unusual for an arrest,” said Professor Harry Levine, a Queens College sociologist who has documented marijuana arrests in New York and across the country. “If you were a 56-year-old white woman, you might get to be the first such weed bust ever in New York City — except, possibly, for a mentally ill person.”
About 87 percent of the marijuana arrests in the Bloomberg era have been of blacks and Latinos, most of them men, and generally under the age of 25 — although surveys consistently show that whites are more likely to use it.
These drug busts were the No. 1 harvest of the city’s stop, question and frisk policing from 2009 through 2012, according to a report released Thursday by the New York State attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman. Marijuana possession was the most common charge of those arrested during those stops. The few whites and Asians arrested on these charges were 50 percent more likely than blacks to have the case “adjourned in contemplation of dismissal,” the report showed.
Now, having a little bit of pot, like a joint, is not a crime as long as you don’t burn or openly display it. Having it in my backpack was a violation of law, meaning that it is an offense that is lower than a misdemeanor. Pot in the backpack is approximately the same as making an illegal turn in a car. Taking it out and waving it in the face of a police officer or lighting up a joint on the street would drive it up to the lowest-level misdemeanor.
How was it that all the black and Latino males were displaying or burning pot where it could be seen by the police? The answer is that many of them were asked during the stops to empty their pockets. What had been a concealed joint and the merest violation of the law was transformed into a misdemeanor by being “openly displayed.” If these were illegal searches — and they very well could have been — good luck trying to prove it....
Michael A. Cardozo, the chief lawyer for the city, is eager to get an appeals court to throw out the findings of fact by a judge who ruled against the city in a lawsuit over the stop-and-frisk tactics. Mr. Cardozo appears to believe, mistakenly, that losing a lawsuit is going to damage the legacy of his patron, Mayor Bloomberg. Undoing a lawsuit will not unstain this history.
As for me, the pot got to a couple of people who might need it to get through some medical storms. It’s too risky for me to use: I already have a hard enough time keeping my backpack zipped.
Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
New ACLU report spotlights thousands of nonviolent prisoners serving LWOP terms
The ACLU has released a huge new report giving focused attention to the thousands of prisoners serving life without parole sentences in the United States for nonviolent drug and property crimes. This massive new report, which can be accessed at this link, is titled "A Living Death: Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses." This related webpage highlights some specific defendants and cases with this introduction:
For 3,278 people, it was nonviolent offenses like stealing a $159 jacket or serving as a middleman in the sale of $10 of marijuana. An estimated 65% of them are Black. Many of them were struggling with mental illness, drug dependency or financial desperation when they committed their crimes. None of them will ever come home to their parents and children. And taxpayers are spending billions to keep them behind bars.
Here is an excerpt from the 200+ page report's executive summary:
Using data obtained from the Bureau of Prisons and state Departments of Corrections, the ACLU calculates that as of 2012, there were 3,278 prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent drug and property crimes in the federal system and in nine states that provided such statistics (there may well be more such prisoners in other states). About 79 percent of these 3,278 prisoners are serving LWOP for nonviolent drug crimes. Nearly two-thirds of prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses nationwide are in the federal system; of these, 96 percent are serving LWOP for drug crimes. More than 18 percent of federal prisoners surveyed by the ACLU are serving LWOP for their first offenses. Of the states that sentence nonviolent offenders to LWOP, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Oklahoma have the highest numbers of prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent crimes, largely due to three-strikes and other kinds of habitual offender laws that mandate an LWOP sentence for the commission of a nonviolent crime. The overwhelming majority (83.4 percent) of the LWOP sentences for nonviolent crimes surveyed by the ACLU were mandatory. In these cases, the sentencing judges had no choice in sentencing due to laws requiring mandatory minimum periods of imprisonment, habitual offender laws, statutory penalty enhancements, or other sentencing rules that mandated LWOP. Prosecutors, on the other hand, have immense power over defendants’ fates: whether or not to charge a defendant with a sentencing enhancement triggering an LWOP sentence is within their discretion. In case after case reviewed by the ACLU, the sentencing judge said on the record that he or she opposed the mandatory LWOP sentence as too severe but had no discretion to take individual circumstances into account or override the prosecutor’s charging decision.
As striking as they are, the numbers documented in this report underrepresent the true number of people who will die in prison after being convicted of a nonviolent crime in this country. The thousands of people noted above do not include the substantial number of prisoners who will die behind bars after being convicted of a crime classified as “violent” (such as a conviction for assault after a bar fight), nor do the numbers include “de facto” LWOP sentences that exceed the convicted person’s natural lifespan, such as a sentence of 350 years for a series of nonviolent drug sales. Although less-violent and de facto LWOP cases fall outside of the scope of this report, they remain a troubling manifestation of extreme sentencing policies in this country.
November 13, 2013 in Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack
Thursday, November 07, 2013
"Free at Last? Judicial Discretion and Racial Disparities in Federal Sentencing"The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Crystal Yang now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were created to reduce unwarranted sentencing disparities among similar defendants. This paper explores the impact of increased judicial discretion on racial disparities in sentencing after the Guidelines were struck down in United States v. Booker (2005). Using data on the universe of federal defendants, I find that black defendants are sentenced to almost two months more in prison compared to their white counterparts after Booker, a 4% increase in average sentence length. To identify the sources of racial disparities, I construct a dataset linking judges to over 400,000 defendants. Exploiting the random assignment of cases to judges, I find that racial disparities are greater among judges appointed after Booker, suggesting acculturation to the Guidelines by judges with experience sentencing under mandatory regime. Prosecutors also respond to increased judicial discretion by charging black defendants with longer mandatory minimums.
I am always interested in sophisticated analyses of the post-Booker sentencing system, so I am looking forward to finding time to review this article closely. But, as with lots of "disparity" sentencing scholarship, I worry that this article is among those spending lots of time worrying about and trying to figure out whose sentences may be longer after Booker rather than worrying about and trying to figure out if all sentence remain way too long in the federal sentencing system.
November 7, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Friday, November 01, 2013
Second Circuit panel halts NYC stop-and-frisk remedies and removes district judge from caseAs reported via this New York Law Journal article, headlined "Circuit Rebuffs Scheindlin on Stop/Frisk," yesterday brought an eventful order from a panel of Second Circuit judges in a high-profile lawsuit about police practices in New York City. Though not involving a sentencing issue, I suspect reader of this blog might have thoughts they wish to share on this notable criminal justice development. Here are the basics from the start of the NYLJ report:
Southern District Judge Shira Scheindlin has been ordered off the stop-and-frisk cases by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
The circuit said the judge had given the "appearance of partiality" in her handling of Floyd v. City of New York, 13-3088, and it stayed pending appeal Scheindlin's appointment of a monitor to reform New York City Police Department stop-and-frisk policies and practices she had held unconstitutional.
Two days after oral argument on whether to stay Scheindlin's appointment of monitor Peter Zimroth, a partner at Arnold & Porter, to help remedy police violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, the Second Circuit said Scheindlin presented the appearance of partiality both in how she came to preside over the Floyd case in the first place and in interviews she gave to reporters.
Judges Jose Cabranes, Barrington Parker and John Walker, in a three-page order, stayed Scheindlin's Aug. 12 liability opinion in Floyd, where she found a top-down police department practice of making hundreds of thousands of stops without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and that blacks and Hispanics were targets of those stops.
The circuit also stayed Scheindlin's opinion and order issued on Jan. 8, 2013 in the related case of Ligon v. City of New York, 13-3123, where she issued a preliminary injunction ordering police to cease making stops for trespass without reasonable suspicion outside of privately-owned buildings in the Bronx.
Finally, the circuit stayed the remedies opinion she issued on Aug. 12 that applied to both Floyd and Ligon. In addition to the appointment of a monitor, Scheindlin directed several other measures be taken, including a one-year pilot program in which police in one precinct in each of the city's five boroughs wear body cameras to record stop encounters for one year.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Federal sentencing reform: an unlikely Senatorial love story and a Booker double-dose?The silly title of this post is my first reaction to seeing this new report in the Wall Street Journal about the plans and priorities of US Senator-elect from New Jersey Cory Booker. The piece is headlined "On Booker's To-Do List: Revamp Drug Laws; New Jersey's Senator-Elect Face Challenges Once He Takes Office," and here are the excerpts that caught my special attention:
Senator-elect Cory Booker sees revamping drug policies as one of the principal issues he can champion once he takes office in Washington, D.C., and he believes he can draw bipartisan support on the issue—even among those who supported his Republican challenger in the special-election race.
Mr. Booker said he has had initial conversations with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid about his opinions on the issue—such as eliminating mandatory minimum-sentencing laws for nonviolent offenders and reducing incarceration rates as a way to help save tax dollars.
In the special-election race that wrapped up last week, Mr. Booker campaigned on working across the aisle despite the bitter partisan divide in Washington. Drug policy could be one area where he finds some success, according to those who work in the field. He singled out Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a libertarian, as someone who sees eye-to-eye with him on the issue.
"I want to work with him," said Mr. Booker, about Mr. Paul, during an interview Tuesday at his campaign office in the city he led as mayor for seven years. "I take everybody in the Senate as sincere people who want to make a difference."
Mr. Paul — a tea-party leader seen as a possible 2016 Republican presidential contender — endorsed Mr. Booker's challenger, Steve Lonegan, in the Oct. 16 Senate election. But a spokeswoman for Mr. Paul on Tuesday welcomed Mr. Booker's gesture.
"Senator Paul would be pleased to work with any member who believes that mandatory minimum sentencing is unnecessary," the spokeswoman said. "He looks forward to Senator Booker's assistance on this important issue."
I am very pleased to see Booker talking up federal sentencing reform as he heads inside the Beltway, and I am especially excited to see him calling for a partnership with Senator Rand. Indeed, if the two of them truly seek to make sentencing reform a priority in the weeks and months ahead, the momentum toward reform may really become unstoppable.
And, of course, the notable irony of another person with the surname Booker shaking up federal sentencing perhaps mertis some special attention by clever wanna-be-headline-writing commentators.
Some recent and older related posts:
- Senator Rand Paul talking up restoring voting and gun rights for felons, as well as sentencing reform
- Is it too early want the new Senator from NJ to get going on sentencing reform?
- "NAACP, right-wing foes get friendly" when it comes to prison costs
- "Conservatives latch onto prison reform"
- Rand Paul begins forceful pitch in campaign against federal mandatory minimums
- Senators Durbin and Lee come together to introduce "Smarter Sentencing Act"
- Does Senator Ted Cruz agree with GOP Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul about the need for federal sentencing reform?
- Could significant federal criminal justice reforms become more likely if the GOP wins Senate in 2014?
- "The most interesting part of [Rand Paul's] speech was his widely anticipated defense of drug law reform."
- "Prison-Sentence Reform: A bill to give judges flexibility to impose shorter sentences deserves conservatives’ support."
- Another notable GOP member of Congress advocating for federal sentencing reform
October 23, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Fascination and frustration with "finality fixation" in en banc Sixth Circuit Blewett argumentsAs mentioned in this recent post, I have so far resisted writing up my thoughts concerning last week's remarkable Sixth Circuit en banc Blewett oral argument on crack sentencing modifications. I have done so in part because I wanted to be able to devote a block of time to the task, and in part because via the Sixth Circuit website folks can (and should) listen for themselves to the audio recording of the hour-long argument via this link.
Now that I have had more time to think about last week's oral argument and the broader issues in Blewett, I continue to find myself (as the title of this post suggests) fascinated and frustrated by what I will call a "finality fixation" in the context of sentencing issues. A variation of this fixation made me a bit batty in the FSA pipeline debate that culminated in the Supreme Court's Dorsey ruling, and it also comes to play in the on-going dispute over whether the Supreme Court's Miller ruling will apply retroactively to final juve murder sentences. I am likely fixated on this notion of a "finality fixation" because I am currently working on a symposium article on this topic. Still, the tenor of much of the Blewett oral argument, and other arenas where concerns about sentencing finality seem often now to trump interests in sentencing fitness and fairness, have a way of driving me to fits of fascination and frustration.
At the risk of repeating parts of the brief on Eighth Amendment issues which I helped file on behalf of the NACDL (and which is discussed and linked via this prior post), let me try here to explain what still makes me a bit nutty about cases like Blewett.
Point 1: Each and every federal criminal justice policy-maker in the three branches of the federal government — Congress, the Prez and his Justice Department, and the US Sentencing Commission — have all expressly and formally declared that all 100-1 ratio pre-FSA crack prison sentences were unfair, excessive and ineffectual, AND Congress enacted the "Fair Sentencing Act" to lower all federal crack sentences by raising the trigger quantity for mandatory minimum prison terms and by mandated that the US Sentencing Commission significantly lower all crack guideline prison ranges.
Point 2: When it reformed modern sentencing rules and eliminated parole release, Congress created a express statutory sentencing modification mechanism — in 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) — through which offenders still in prison who were "sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission [can move for a court to] reduce the term of imprisonment," AND thousands of the most serious crack offenders sentenced before the FSA have had their prison sentences reduced through this stautory mechanism. (This latest USSC report indicates not only that 7,300+ pre-FSA crack offenders have had their prison terms reduced by an average of 29 months, but also that thousands of these crack offenders got reduced sentences despite having extensives criminal histories and/or having used a weapon in their offense and/or having a leadership role in the offense. See Table 6 of USSC report.)
Point 3: Congress, the Prez and his Justice Department, and the US Sentencing Commission have all ordered, authorized and/or not objected to thousands of more serious pre-FSA crack offenders being eligble for (and regularly receiving) reduced prison terms via the statutory sentencing modification mechanism of 3582(c)(2). The Blewetts and other less serious pre-FSA crack offenders whose sentences were impacted by the 100-1 mandatory minimum terms and who are still in federal prison serving (now-repealed) pre-FSA crack sentences that every federal criminal justice policy-maker in each branch of the federal government have expressly and formally declared unfair, excessive and ineffectual are now simply arguing that they, too, should be eligible to use the same statutory sentence modification mechanism that thousands of the most serious crack offenders have already benefitted from.
Point 4: Nobody has, to my knowledge, even tried to offer a substantive defense or penological justification as to why the Blewetts and only those less serious pre-FSA crack offenders should not even be eligible for the statutory sentencing modification mechanism of 3582(c)(2) and thus must serve the full duration of (now-repealed) pre-FSA crack sentences. Indeed, it seem to me at least that it is not just unjust, but irrational and cruel and unusual, to require only the least serious pre-FSA crack offenders to serve out prison terms that every federal criminal justice policy-maker in each branch of the federal government have expressly and formally declared unfair, excessive and ineffectual, especially given that thousands of the most serious pre-FSA crack offenders can and have already benefitted from the statutory sentencing modification mechanism of 3582(c)(2). (Critically, Congress has never stated nor even suggested, either expressly or implicitly, that it wanted the Blewetts and only those less serious pre-FSA crack offenders to be catergorically ineligible for sentence modification. Indeed, I think the fair implication of the express provisions of the FSA is that all pre-FSA crack offenders should at least have a chance for sentence modification pursuant to 3582(c)(2).)
In light of all these points, in my view the only plausible rationale for denying the Blewetts and other less serious pre-FSA crack offenders a chance for sentence modification is the oft-stated, but rarely thought-through, idea of "finality." And though I think finality is an important policy concern when defendants are attacking long-final convictions, I do not think this concept of finality historically has or now should be given great weight when a defendant is only seeking to modestly modify a sentence. Further, when a federal defendant is seeking only a modest prison sentence modification under an express statutory provision created by Congress, the comity and separation of powers concerns that might also give finality interests extra heft are not present.
Thus my contention that only a "finality fixation" fully accounts for why so many judges seem resistant to the various legal arguments that the Blewetts and other less serious crack offenders are making in these FSA cases. As I see it, given the text and purposes of the FSA and the text and purposes of 3852(c)(2), the eagerness of judges to deny relief to the Blewetts and other less serious crack offenders reflects a fixation on the notion that, even in this remarkable and unique setting, concerns about sentencing finality should still consistently and conclusively trump the need to achieving sentencing fitness and fairness. And that reality fascinates and frustrates me.
Am I silly, dear readers, to be so fascinated and frustrated by all this? I am hoping, especially from those eager to see the Blewett panel decision undone (which I now fear a majority of the Sixth Circuit is planning to do), for responses in the comments that might help me better see what my analysis above is missing and/or why I should not be so nutty about these "finality fixation" matters.Related posts on Blewett:
- On (wrong?) constitutional grounds, split Sixth Circuit panel gives full retroactive effect to new FSA crack sentences
- "Crackheaded Ruling by Sixth Circuit"
- How quickly can and will (hundreds of) imprisoned crack defendants file "Blewett claims"?
- Two weeks later, has there been any significant and noteworthy Blewett blowback?
- As expected, feds ask full Sixth Circuit to review and reverse Blewett crack retroactivity ruling
- Sixth Circuit calls for briefing on Eighth Amendment in Blewett crack sentencing retroactivity case
- My Sixth Circuit amicus brief effort now filed explaining my Eighth Amendment FSA views in Blewett
- Full Sixth Circuit grants en banc review in Blewett
- Audio of Sixth Circuit en banc Blewett oral argument available (and drinking game suggestion)
October 15, 2013 in Examples of "over-punishment", Implementing retroactively new USSC crack guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Saturday, October 12, 2013
Audio of Sixth Circuit en banc Blewett oral argument available (and drinking game suggestion)I have been busy and distracted by a variety of work (and non-work) activities ever since attending the remarkable Sixth Circuit en banc Blewett oral argument concerning crack sentencing modifications, and I have not wanted to write up my thoughts on the argument until I had a big block of time to devote to the task. Ergo, I expect I will be posting commentary on the oral argument in this space sometime toward the end of this weekend.
In the meantime, thanks to the tech-friendly Sixth Circuit website, everyone can listen to an audio recording of Wednesday afternoon's hour-long argument via this link. I encourage everyone interested in these issues to take time to listen to the recording. (And, if one is eager to make the listening experience even more exciting, I would recommend using the audio as a drinking game during which a listener must take a big drink every time someone says "Professor Berman." The brief I helped file on behalf of the NACDL, which is discussed and linked via this prior post, was subject to discussion during the argument even though there was, disappointingly, very little focused consideration of the Eighth Amendment jurisprudence I stressed in that brief.)
October 12, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack