Thursday, September 19, 2013

"Holder directs attorneys to seek reduced sentences in pending drug cases"

The title of this post is the headline of this Washington Post report on the latest announcement from AG Eric Holder concerning federal drug prosecution policies. Here is how the article starts:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Thursday that he has directed U.S. attorneys across the country to apply new sentencing guidelines to ongoing drug cases so that low-level, nonviolent offenders will not face severe mandatory sentences.

The new guidelines will be applied to suspects who have been charged but not yet put on trial, as well as to individuals who have been convicted but not yet sentenced. The directive does not affect offenders already sentenced or serving time in prison.

Holder announced last month that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders would no longer be charged with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences. The new directive marked an expansion of that effort.

“I am pleased to announce today that the department has issued new guidance to apply our updated charging policy not only to new matters, but also to pending cases where the defendant was charged before the policy was issued but is still awaiting adjudication of guilt,” Holder said in a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus.

AG Holder's full speech to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Criminal Justice Issues Forum is now available at this link, and here are some additional excerpts:

America’s criminal justice system is in need of targeted reform. Throughout this country, too many Americans are trapped – and too many communities are weakened – by a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration. Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long – and for no truly good law enforcement reason. The U.S. prison population has grown at an astonishing rate over the last three decades – by almost 800 percent since 1980, despite the fact that America’s overall population has increased by only about a third. As we speak, more than 219,000 federal inmates are currently behind bars. Almost half are serving time for drug-related crimes. And many have substance use disorders.

Outside of the federal system, an additional nine to 10 million people cycle through local jails each year. And roughly 40 percent of former federal prisoners – along with more than 60 percent of former state prisoners – are rearrested or have their supervision revoked within three years after their release, at great cost to American taxpayers.

It’s clear, in a broad sense, that 20th-century criminal justice solutions are just not adequate to address the 21st century challenges we face. There’s no question that incarceration will always have a role to play in our criminal justice system. But there’s also no denying that widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels imposes significant human and moral costs – as well as a tremendous economic burden, totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone.

Especially in times of widespread budgetary difficulties and federal sequestration – when leaders at every level of government have been asked to do more with less – we must resolve, as a country and as a people, to do much better....

It’s time – in fact, it’s well past time – to take a fundamentally new approach. And today, I am proud to join you in working to ensure that – in this area and many others – the scales of justice find a more appropriate balance....

In addition – in recent months – the Justice Department also has updated its framework for considering compassionate release for some inmates who face extraordinary or compelling circumstances, and who pose no threat to the public. Of course, as our primary responsibility, we must ensure public safety. But considering the applications of certain people with convictions for nonviolent offenses – such as individuals seeking release on medical grounds, or elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and have served significant portions of their sentences – is the right thing to do. It is the smart thing to do. And it will allow the Bureau of Prisons to evaluate compassionate release applications through a careful review process before each case comes before a judge – who will make a final determination on whether release is warranted.

September 19, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Notable new empirical research exploring legislators, prosecutors and "Expressive Enforcement"

A helpful reader altered and recommended to me this notable new article on SSRN authored by Avlana Eisenberg and titled "Expressive Enforcement." Here is the abstract:

Laws send messages, some of which may be heard at the moment of enactment. However, much of a law’s expressive impact is bound up in its enforcement.  Although scholars have extensively debated the wisdom of expressive legislation, their discussions have focused largely on enactment-related messaging, rather than on expressive enforcement.  This Article uses hate crime laws — the paradigmatic example of expressive legislation — as a case study to challenge conventional understandings of the messaging function of lawmaking.  The Article asks: How do institutional incentives shape prosecutors’ enforcement decisions, and how do these decisions affect the message of hate crime laws?

To answer that question, the Article presents original data from the first multi-state qualitative empirical study of hate crime prosecution.  The findings help to explain a paradox: in archetypal hate crime cases involving animus directed at a victim’s core identity features — such as race or sexual orientation — prosecutors may decline to include hate crime charges because of statutory incentives, difficulty of proving motive, and concerns about jury reaction.  Conversely, hate crime enforcement may be appealing to prosecutors in precisely those cases that are least likely to further the expressive purposes of hate crime laws.  After exploring this mismatch, the Article identifies some areas where there may be irreconcilable tensions between the expressive goals of legislators and the incentives of prosecutors and, in other areas, offers recommendations to unify legislative goals with expressive enforcement.

September 19, 2013 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

"Evidence-Based Sentencing and the Scientific Rationalization of Discrimination"

The title of this post is the title of this provocative new paper by Sonja Starr now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This paper critiques, on legal and empirical grounds, the growing trend of basing criminal sentences on actuarial recidivism risk prediction instruments that include demographic and socioeconomic variables.  I argue that this practice violates the Equal Protection Clause and is bad policy: an explicit embrace of otherwise-condemned discrimination, sanitized by scientific language.

To demonstrate that this practice should be subject to heightened constitutional scrutiny, I comprehensively review the relevant case law, much of which has been ignored by existing literature.  To demonstrate that it cannot survive that scrutiny and is undesirable policy, I review the empirical evidence underlying the instruments.  I show that they provide wildly imprecise individual risk predictions, that there is no compelling evidence that they outperform judges’ informal predictions, that less discriminatory alternatives would likely perform as well, and that the instruments do not even address the right question: the effect of a given sentencing decision on recidivism risk.  Finally, I also present new, suggestive empirical evidence, based on a randomized experiment using fictional cases, that these instruments should not be expected merely to substitute actuarial predictions for less scientific risk assessments, but instead to increase the weight given to recidivism risk versus other sentencing considerations.

September 3, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 25, 2013

"Fifty years ago this month, a young man and an older man sat down and began to plot the end of the death penalty in America."

The title of this post is the first sentence of this interesting piece by Jesse Wegman appearing in the Review section of today's New York Times under the headline "The Death Memo."  Here are more excerpts from what follows:

It was an audacious idea at the time — capital punishment was right there in the Constitution, the Supreme Court had no problem with it, and public opinion remained strongly in its favor.

But to many people, the summer of 1963 represented a new world, one alive with dreams of fairness and equality. That August, across the Mall from the Lincoln Memorial, Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, a strong opponent of capital punishment, charged his 24-year-old law clerk, Alan Dershowitz, to develop the most compelling legal argument that the death penalty violated the Constitution.

“He said, ‘Don’t find me mass murderers, don’t find me serial killers,’” Mr. Dershowitz, the well-known defense lawyer, recalled recently. Mr. Dershowitz’s resulting memo, described in Evan Mandery’s excellent new book, “A Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America,” drew particular attention to racial disparities in the death penalty’s application. Justice Goldberg was impressed, and he worked the memo into a dissent. But so as not to scare off his colleagues, he removed almost every reference to race.

Fifty years later, the death penalty lives on. The Supreme Court suspended it in 1972, holding that the arbitrariness of its application constituted cruel and unusual punishment. In 1976 the court reinstated it.  More than 1,300 people have been executed since, but the rate has fallen over the last decade.

Some justices have categorically opposed capital punishment, like William Brennan Jr. and Thurgood Marshall.  Others have maintained it is indisputably constitutional, like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.  But as Mr. Mandery notes, three justices who voted to reinstate it later changed their minds....  These justices, more than those with unwavering positions, may serve as a metaphor for tracking our “evolving standards of decency.”

Arthur Goldberg died in 1990. Mr. Dershowitz, whom he liked to call his clerk for life, remembered one of their final conversations. “I said to him, ‘You’re Moses and you haven’t been given the right to cross over to Israel. You’re going to die on Mount Nebo.’ But I promised him in my lifetime we’d see the end of what he did.”

So how will it end? “It’s going to happen the way things always happen at the court,” Mr. Dershowitz said. “The court will appear to be leading, but it will be following.”

August 25, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Saturday, August 24, 2013

AG Holder's speech at "Dream March" stresses fairness and "equal justice" (... as federal crack prisoners keep waiting)

Gty_martin_luther_king_obama_tk_130116_wgI just got an e-mail providing this link to the text of Attorney General Eric Holder's prepared remarks which he delivered today in Washington DC as part of the "National Action to Realize the Dream March." Here are some excerpts that caught my eye (with my emphasis added):

It is an honor to be here — among so many friends, distinguished civil rights leaders, Members of Congress, and fellow citizens who have fought, rallied, and organized — from the streets of this nation, to the halls of our Capitol — to advance the cause of justice.

Fifty years ago, Dr. King shared his dream with the world and described his vision for a society that offered, and delivered, the promise of equal justice under law.   He assured his fellow citizens that this goal was within reach — so long as they kept faith with one another, and maintained the courage and commitment to work toward it.  And he urged them to do just that.  By calling for no more — and no less — than equal justice.  By standing up for the civil rights to which everyone is entitled.  And by speaking out — in the face of hatred and violence, in defiance of those who sought to turn them back with fire hoses, bullets, and bombs — for the dignity of a promise kept; the honor of a right redeemed; and the pursuit of a sacred truth that’s been woven through our history since this country’s earliest days: that all are created equal....

But today's observance is about far more than reflecting on our past.  Today’s March is also about committing to shape the future we will share — a future that preserves the progress, and builds on the achievements, that have led us to this moment.  Today, we look to the work that remains unfinished, and make note of our nation's shortcomings, not because we wish to dwell on imperfection — but because, as those who came before us, we love this great country.  We want this nation to be all that it was designed to be — and all that it can become. We recognize that we are forever bound to one another and that we stand united by the work that lies ahead — and by the journey that still stretches before us.

This morning, we affirm that this struggle must, and will, go on in the cause of our nation’s quest for justice — until every eligible American has the chance to exercise his or her right to vote, unencumbered by discriminatory or unneeded procedures, rules, or practices.  It must go on until our criminal justice system can ensure that all are treated equally and fairly in the eyes of the law.  And it must go on until every action we take reflects our values and that which is best about us.  It must go on until those now living, and generations yet to be born, can be assured the rights and opportunities that have been too long denied to too many.

The America envisioned at this site 50 years ago — the “beloved community” — has not yet been realized.  But half a century after the March, and 150 years after Emancipation, it is finally within our grasp.  Together — through determined effort; through a willingness to confront corrosive forces tied to special interests rather than the common good; and through devotion to our founding documents — I know that, in the 21st century, we will see an America that is more perfect and more fair....

To AG Holder's credit, back in April 2009, his Justice Department went to Capitol Hill to tell Congress that the current Administration then believed (and still believes?) that a commitment to fairness and equal justice required completely eliminating the differential treatment of crack and powder cocaine in federal sentencing law.  But since that time, the Obama Administration has suggested it is content with Congress's decision to merely reduce — from 100-1 to 18-1 — the differential treatment of drug quantities for crack and powder.  Moreover, this Administration has made no real effort to help those sentenced before the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act to get any fair or equal benefits from the new law's reduced crack sentencing terms.

Indeed, from its initial advocacy to limit "pipeline" cases from getting the benefit of the FSA's reduced mandatory minimums, to its continued disinclination to seek to help folks still serving excessively long sentences based on the pre-FSA 100-1 crack laws, the Holder Justice Department's actions suggest they do not really think a commitment to fairness and equal justice calls for doing much of anything to help crack offenders sentenced before August 2013. 

Please understand that I know full well the range of forcefully legal arguments and political considerations which can be made to justify preventing thousands of federal prisoners still serving excessively long crack sentences from getting any benefits from the FSA.  But I also know full well that if Dr. King were alive today, he surely would be advocating forcefully for this Administration to live up to its commitment to fairness and equal justice and to do something to help those federal prisoners still languishing in prison based on the unfair and unequal sentences required by the pre-FSA crack laws.

Indeed, with current federal prisoners in mind, I think we still are awaiting the day that Dr. King dreamed of and spoke about when he ended his speech in this way:

[I dream of] the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true.  So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.  Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!  Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!  Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

I suppose we all need to just keep dreaming, while still stressing the "fierce urgency of now."

August 24, 2013 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Revised Post (revised yet again) upon request

Regular readers know all about the controversy and pending en-banc litigation engendered by a decision rendered three months ago by a split Sixth Circuit panel in US v. Blewett, No. 12-5226 (6th Cir. May 17, 2013) (available here).....

ADDITIONAL ORIGINAL MATERIALS IN REST OF THIS POST REMOVED upon reasonable requests by lots of reasonable folks for reasonable reasons, in my judgment....

August 20, 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 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Monday, August 19, 2013

"Crack Cocaine, Congressional Inaction, and Equal Protection"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper on SSRN authored by Paul Larkin Jr. and which appears to be critical of the Sixth Circuit's (now vacated) panel decision in US v. Blewett. Here is the abstract:

For decades, scholars and courts have debated whether the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 discriminates against African Americans by imposing far stiffer punishments for trafficking in crack cocaine than in its powdered form.  The academy has generally concluded that the federal crack cocaine sentencing laws are racially discriminatory, while the federal courts have almost uniformly rejected the same argument. Three years ago Congress, via the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, addressed the issue by reducing, without eliminating, the sentencing disparity. Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in United States v. Blewett, 719 F.3d 482 (6th Cir. 2013), concluded that the 2010 statute would be unconstitutional if it were not applied retroactively. The Blewett case forces this debate back into the political arena.

The Sixth Circuit misapplied equal protection law.  Rather than ask whether Congress refused to apply the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively for a discriminatory purpose, the court concluded that Congress’s decision to adopt a prospective-only statute was tantamount to readoption of Jim Crow.  Settled law, however, requires proof of discriminatory intent.  Moreover, Congress’s refusal to adopt retroactive legislation cannot violate the Due Process Clause.  The clause applies only to positive law, so Congress cannot violate the clause by not enacting legislation.  Finally, the Sixth Circuit failed to consider the effect of strict enforcement of the drug laws on the innocent residents of communities where crack trafficking occurs.  It may be unwise to continue to imprison crack offenders for the full length of their prison terms imposed under the strict provisions of a now-amended law, but a mistaken decision is not invariably an unconstitutional one.

Related posts on Blewett:

August 19, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 15, 2013

"White women sent to Ohio prisons in record numbers, reports say"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new press report about some notable criminal justice data coming out of the Buckeye State.  Here are the details:

Amanda Lane is the face of Ohio's fastest-growing prison trend. Lane, 28, is white and from rural Pickaway County, where she was convicted of drug charges and sentenced to 18 months in prison. The state's prisons are filling up with people just like her, a surge that has shocked researchers and experts.

White women, many from rural Ohio, are the fastest growing population in Ohio prisons. In fact, they made up 80 percent of the female felons sentenced to prison between June 30, 2012, and July 1, or fiscal year 2013, according to state records.

Compare that to fiscal year 2003, when white women sentenced to prison made up 55 percent of females in prison. In 1998, they made up 43 percent, according to state records.

On June 1, there were 3,974 female inmates in Ohio prisons; 2,962 were white, or nearly 75 percent. Nationally, the numbers of white women sentenced to prison rose 48 percent from 2000 to 2009, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "It's a major shift," said Steve Van Dine, chief of the bureau of research for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, speaking about the trend here. "It's rather dramatic."

Researchers say it is clear where many of the the numbers are coming from: rural Ohio. "That's the thing that jumped out at me," said James Austin, a national researcher who studied women in Ohio prisons through a grant from the U.S. Justice Department. "The numbers weren't coming from Cleveland or Columbus, but from predominantly white, rural counties."...

In the men, the percentages have changed, as the number of whites sentenced to prison has grown. In June, there are 22,880 white men in prison, while there are 21,864 black men. But those numbers are not as dramatic as the shifts seen in women felons.

"I tend to believe that judges in the more rural counties tend to sentence people more harshly," said Mike Huff, a former assistant Athens County prosecutor who now handles criminal defense work. "In rural counties, it is a big deal when someone gets caught making methamphetamine or selling drugs. People talk about it. They don't want that stuff around. Small newspapers and radio stations report it. It's big news, and judges realize that."

In a 2006 report for Ohio prisons, Austin found that "the increase in admissions has been largely limited to white females who tend to come from the more rural and suburban areas of the state. Compared to males, female admissions tend to be more white, older convicted of a non-violent crime, have short sentences (and) no prior incarcerations."...

Austin's report said one of the key reasons for the growth of white women in prison is that smaller, rural counties have a limited number of community-based programs for women, meaning judges have few programming options in sentencings. "In smaller counties, there are, generally, fewer programs for women," Austin said in an interview.

August 15, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Shouldn't AG Holder's speech impact federal judges at sentencing ... such as Jesse Jackson Jr.'s?

In this post late yesterday, I provided a lot of lengthy excerpts from Attorney General Eric Holder's remarks to the ABA calling for significant sentencing reforms.  Today I have been thinking about an abridged summary of the AG's speech which, were I advocating for a federal defendant in court at sentencing, I might commit to memory:

Attorney General Eric Holder, the nation's top prosecutor and leader of the federal criminal justice system, has expressly complained that “our system is in too many respects broken.”  AG Holder has called some federal mandatory minimum prison terms “excessive” and “draconian” and asserted “they oftentimes generate unfairly long sentences”; he has asserted that “people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers” and called this “reality” both “shameful” and “unworthy of our great country.” 

Most fundamentally, AG Holder has now repeatedly lamented that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” and he has cajoled “every member of our profession” to recognize that “it’s well past time” to consider a “fundamentally new approach” in order to “break free of a tired status quo” and “take bold steps to reform and strengthen America’s criminal justice system.”

Indeed, AG Holder has said that “together we must declare that we will no longer settle for such an unjust and unsustainable status quo” and that “this is our solemn obligation, as stewards of the law, and servants of those whom it protects and empowers.” For these reasons, your honor, I respectfully contend that imposing a guideline sentence (or whatever prison sentence sought by the prosecution) would risk reinforcing an unjust and unsustainable status quo.
I would think this advocacy could and should be especially effective when defendants are people of color whom, according to the US Attorney General, "often face harsher punishments than their peers.” People like, for example, Jesse Jackson Jr. and Sandi Jackson who, as detailed in recent press reports here and here, are scheduled to be sentencing tomorrow in federal district court in DC.

August 13, 2013 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack

Friday, August 02, 2013

"Sentencing Reform Starts to Pay Off"

The title of this post is the headline of this (too short) new New York Times editorial. Here is the text:

In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the vast disparity in the way the federal courts punish crack versus powder cocaine offenses. Instead of treating 100 grams of cocaine the same as 1 gram of crack for sentencing purposes, the law cut the ratio to 18 to 1. Initially, the law applied only to future offenders, but, a year later, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to apply it retroactively. Republicans raged, charging that crime would go up and that prisoners would overwhelm the courts with frivolous demands for sentence reductions. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa said the commission was pursuing “a liberal agenda at all costs.”

This week, we began to learn that there are no costs, only benefits. According to a preliminary report released by the commission, more than 7,300 federal prisoners have had their sentences shortened under the law. The average reduction is 29 months, meaning that over all, offenders are serving roughly 16,000 years fewer than they otherwise would have. And since the federal government spends about $30,000 per year to house an inmate, this reduction alone is worth nearly half-a-billion dollars — big money for a Bureau of Prisons with a $7 billion budget. In addition, the commission found no significant difference in recidivism rates between those prisoners who were released early and those who served their full sentences.

Federal judges nationwide have long expressed vigorous disagreement with both the sentencing disparity and the mandatory minimum sentences they are forced to impose, both of which have been drivers of our bloated federal prison system. But two bipartisan bills in Congress now propose a cheaper and more humane approach. It would include reducing mandatory minimums, giving judges more flexibility to sentence below those minimums, and making more inmates eligible for reductions to their sentences under the new ratio.

But 18 to 1 is still out of whack. The ratio was always based on faulty science and misguided assumptions, and it still disproportionately punishes blacks, who make up more than 80 percent of those prosecuted for federal crack offenses. The commission and the Obama administration have called for a 1-to-1 ratio. The question is not whether we can afford to do it, but whether we can afford not to.

As my many blog posts highlight, there is a lot more which can and needs to be said concerning all the topics that this editorial touches upon. But I am very pleased to see that the Times is noticing the impact of recent federal sentencing reforms and call for more.

August 2, 2013 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

New USSC data on implimentation and impact of retroactive crack guidelines after FSA

I just noticed on the US Sentencing Commission's website this new data report carrying the title "Preliminary Crack Retroactivity Data Report; Fair Sentencing Act."  This report, dated July 2013, appears to be the latest accounting of who has (and has not) received the benefit of retroactive application of the 2011 amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines for crack offenses which implemented the new 18-1 crack/powder ratio that Congress created via the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

Based on the information reflected in Tables 1 amd 8 of this data report, it appears that just over 7300 defendants received, on average, a 29-month reduction in their crack sentences thanks to the new FSA-inspired crack guidelines being made retroactive.  Significantly, this average reduction merely lowered the average crack sentence from roughly 12.5 years to just over 10 years for the group receiving sentence reductions; this means that even the new-average-lowered sentence for crack offenses were still significantly higher that the average sentences imposed for any other federal drug crimes.

For those eager to gauge the potential economic impact of FSA retroactivity, it appears that the retroactive guidelines as implemented has now saved almost 16,000 cumulative years of federal imprisonment, with a consequent savings to federal taxpayers of approximately a half-billion dollars (based on a conservative estimate of a taxpayer cost of roughly $30,000 per prisoner for each year of federal incarceration).  And for those concerned about racial sentencing dynamics, Table 5 of this data reports that more than 85% of those benefiting from reduced crack sentences have been black prisoners, demonstrating once again the historically racialized reality of federal crack prosecutions.

As I have said in prior posts, if those defendants who received reduced sentences find ways to become productive (and tax-paying) citizens, the benefits to society will profoundly transcend the saved incarceration costs. And it those defendants do not learn the error of their law-breaking ways, I both expect and hope they will really get the sentencing book thrown at them if ever up for sentencing again.

July 30, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, July 29, 2013

New Slate pitch for Prez to use clemency powers to address crack sentencing disparities

Thanks to the suggestions, and insights and energy of Harlan Protass, a criminal-defense lawyer in New York and an adjunct professor at the Cardozo School of Law, some ideas expressed in this recent post concerning the President Obama's words and (lack of) actions now find expression in this new Slate commentary.  Here is how the piece, co-written by me and Harlan, starts and finishes:

President Barack Obama, commenting last week on George Zimmerman’s acquittal in Trayvon Martin’s death, remarked on “a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.”  A few months earlier, Attorney General Eric Holder similarly lamented new government data suggesting that even today “black male offenders” are sentenced to federal prison terms “nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes.”  These statements reveal that our nation’s first African-American president and first African-American attorney general are aware of serious racial discrimination in the administration of our nation’s criminal laws.  The question is what they plan to do about it?

Neither the president, nor his attorney general, has followed-up or suggested a fix for the problem.  Yet with one signature, Obama could make a remarkable difference: He could use his constitutional powers to commute the sentences of thousands of disproportionately black inmates serving excessive prison terms for crack cocaine offenses.  Put bluntly, rather than dropping occasional comments about high-profile criminal-justice incidents with racial overtones, both the president and the attorney general should make a focused and sustained effort to redress longstanding criminal justice disparities....

Back in 2009, Holder famously described us as a “nation of cowards” in dealing with race issues.  And while both Holder and the president seem to have the courage to speak about high-profile cases, they have yet to show the fortitude and focus needed to turn high-profile controversies into constructive opportunities.  If President Obama is genuinely committed to addressing racial disparities in the enforcement of our criminal laws, he can grant clemency today, and then make a sustained commitment to addressing these issues throughout his second term.  If he fails to do so, he can, justifiably, be called our nation’s “Coward-in-Chief” where race is concerned.

July 29, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (33) | TrackBack

Friday, July 26, 2013

If you have any concerns about female federal prisoners...

Danburythen you should be especially troubled by this new blog post by Todd Bussert titled "New Hardships For Female Prisoners." That post spotlights this new Slate piece by LawProf Judith Resnik, which highlights the main concern via its headline and subheading: "Harder Time: Why are the federal prison beds for women in the Northeast going to men — while the women get shipped to Alabama?". Here is an excerpt from the Slate piece:

This August, the Federal Bureau of Prisons plans to start shipping women out of its only prison for women in the Northeast, located in Danbury, Conn. — 70 miles from New York City, and in easy reach of visitors for the many prisoners who come from there.

Danbury (where Piper Kerman, who wrote Orange is the New Black, did her time) will soon have only 200 spots for women (in a separate low-security camp).  The prison’s other 1,100 beds will go to men.  Most of the women are slated to be sent to a new 1,800-bed facility in Aliceville, Ala. — 1,070 miles from New York City, a drive that takes nearly 16 hours.

Becoming the site of a new federal prison is good news for Aliceville, population 2,500.  As a New York Times editorial explained last year, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby promoted the facility as an economic boost to the area.  It cost the federal government $250 million.  But as the newspaper also commented, the government bought a “white elephant.” Aliceville is hard for anyone without a car to get to. There is no train station or airport nearby.  Aliceville has no medical center or university, nor many lawyers, religious leaders, or other service providers.

The federal Bureau of Prisons houses about 220,000 people.  Fewer than 7 percent (about 14,500) are women, most of them sentenced for nonviolent crimes, such as drug offenses. Of the 116 facilities the bureau runs, 27 have some beds for women, and seven — counting Danbury — have been exclusively for women.  Danbury is the only prison placement in the Northeast for women.  The federal jails in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Philadelphia are for pretrial detainees.  Other federal facilities for women comparable to Danbury are many miles away, in West Virginia, Florida, and Minnesota....

Being moved far from home limits the opportunities of women being moved out of Danbury; it hurts them in prison and once they get out.  Recent research from Michigan and Ohio documents that inmates who receive regular visits are less likely to have disciplinary problems while in prison and have better chances of staying out of prison once released.

The Bureau of Prisons knows this, as it recognizes the importance of “family and community ties” in its classification system.  The bureau gives inmates points for family ties when assessing the degree of security in which to place individuals.  Getting visits also counts toward qualifying for a transfer to a less secure facility.

Most women come to prison from households with children.  According to the National Women’s Law Center, more than one-half of female federal prisoners have a child under the age of 18.  Last month, the director of the federal prison system sent a memo to all inmates to announce that his staff was “committed to giving you opportunities to enhance your relationship with your children and your role as a parent.”  In addition to letters and calls, he hoped that inmates’ families would bring their children to visit. “There is no substitute for seeing your children, looking them in the eye, and letting them know you care about them,” he wrote.

But for prisoners from New England and the mid-Atlantic states, the move to Aliceville closes off those possibilities.  Placement in Aliceville also makes it harder for lawyers to see their clients and provide help on problems ranging from losing custody of children to challenging convictions.  

What’s the justification for moving Danbury’s women to Aliceville? To make the argument for the large new complex, the Bureau of Prison claimed that Aliceville would benefit women, because the existing facilities for them were about 55 percent over capacity. What the BOP did not mention was that it planned to turn over women’s beds in Danbury to make room for lower security male inmates, also housed in overcrowded facilities.

The skyrocketing numbers of people in prison is a well-known tragedy.  Adding to it is the isolation to which women at Aliceville are being condemned.  The Bureau of Prisons itself describes women as mostly nonviolent and lower escape risks than men.  Why not, therefore, keep Danbury open, as well as send women to community-based facilities near their families, and provide educational options, job training, and treatment programs? Instead of taking a route consistent with its own policies, and newly announced commitments to parenting by prisoners, the government is sending hundreds of women on a long hard trip to Aliceville.

July 26, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, July 21, 2013

"Clemency Reform: We're Still Waiting"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent commentary by Julie Stewart, the President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), appearing at The Huffington Post.  Here are excerpts:

A year ago, The Washington Post and ProPublica reported that the Obama administration was set to reverse its poor record on clemency. At the time, President Obama was coming under growing pressure from sentencing law experts, sentencing reform groups, and civil rights organizations for granting fewer commutations and pardons than any president in modern history. Frustration was high because, in 2008, then-candidate Obama had railed against lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, a growing population within the federal prison system.

In an apparent attempt to address this frustration as Election Day 2012 approached, an unnamed administration official told the Post-ProPublica, "There will be 76 days between the election and inauguration for the president to exercise his [clemency] power." Advisers said he planned to act whether he won or lost the election.

It didn't happen. Since winning reelection, President Obama has not commuted a single sentence. Instead, during the first nine months of fiscal year 2013, the president has denied 2,232 requests for commutation, more than any other president in history denied in a single year.

Last week, the Justice Department sent a letter to the U.S. Sentencing Commission warning that the growing federal prison population was causing severe budgetary problems. The Department said policymakers were confronted with a stark choice: either "reduce the prison population and prison spending" or be prepared for "fewer prosecutors to bring charges, fewer agents to investigate federal crimes, less support to state and local criminal justice partners, less support for treatment, prevention and intervention programs, and cuts along a range of other criminal justice priorities."

Rather than jeopardize public safety by cutting investigators and prosecutors, the Department recommended that the Sentencing Commission (and Congress) reduce drug penalties for low-level offenders and "focus severe penalties on serious and repeat drug traffickers." The question our country faces, the Department wrote, is "how will those involved in crime policy ensure that every dollar invested in public safety is spent in the most productive way possible?"

If the administration wants to make certain every dollar of our nation's public safety budget is spent productively, as it should, President Obama should begin to exercise his executive clemency authority. For starters, he might look at the 2,000 individuals serving sentences of life without parole for drug crimes. He also should look at the 8,800 individuals serving lengthy crack cocaine sentences that were based on a formula that was repudiated by Congress when it passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010....

The pardon power can't fix 30 years of flawed policy, but it can provide meaningful -- and best of all, immediate -- relief to thousands who have already served long sentences and who pose no threat to public safety. It has been a year since the White House said it would get moving on clemency. We're still waiting.

I believe Julie wrote this commentary before the President made his remarks about the Martin/Zimmerman case on Friday.  But Prez Obama said just days ago that the "African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws -- everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws." Rather than simply talk about what he views as "history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws," perhaps Prez Obama might think about actually doing something about them by, for example, granting at least a few commutations to at least a few federal prisoners still serving extreme crack sentences under the pre-FSA 100-1 drug quantity sentencing ratio.

Sadly, it seems yet again that our nation's first African-American President (as well as its first African-American Attorney General) are far more eager to talk the talk than to walk the walk when it comes to criminal justice reform.

UPDATE:  I have just seen that Mark Osler has forcefully argued that the Obama Administration should be getting to work on crack clemencies rather than fly-speck the Zimmerman case in this commentary at MSNBC headlined "The speck in Florida’s eye, and the log in DOJ’s."  Here is one key paragraph from Mark's commentary:

For this administration to re-open the Zimmerman case, with all the resources that will take, would be the equivalent of pointing at the speck in Florida’s eye while ignoring the log in its own. While the Trayvon Martin case involved one tragedy, more than 5,000 African-Americans remain in prison under lengthy federal sentences under a sentencing regime which has now been rejected by all three branches of government. That scheme — which sentenced defendants to the same mandatory minimum term for either 500 grams of powder cocaine or just 5 grams of crack — was rejected by the administration, by the courts, and finally in 2010 by Congress, which reduced the ratio from 100-1 to 18-1.

July 21, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, July 19, 2013

Are folks eager to comment on the President's comments on Martin/Zimmerman case?

I have a feeling the answer to the question in the title of this post is yes, and that is why I provide this post and also this link to Politico's list of "Obama's 10 most important lines" in his comments this afternoon. Here are the top three of the top 10 that struck me as most blog-worthy for the SL&P readership:

"The fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain."

"I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?"

"At least you ask yourself your own questions about, ‘Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character?’ That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy."

And, as I too often fear I need to say on this topic and others, let's try to keep it civil (and relatively novel) in the comments, folks.

July 19, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (40) | TrackBack

Local judge gives poll worker five-year prison term for voter fraud

A colleague alerted me to this notable sentencing story from the Cincinnati area about a woman who received what seems to be a quite severe sentence for voter fraud.  The piece is headlined "Illegal voter gets 5-year prison term," and here are the details:

Calling her a common criminal who abused her authority as a poll worker by violating the principle of “one person, one vote,” a judge sent Melowese Richardson to prison Wednesday for five years following her illegal voting conviction.

“This is not a little thing. It’s not a minor thing. This is what our country’s based on – free elections,” Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman told Richardson.

In a case watched around the country, Richardson was a Hamilton County poll worker from 1998 until her arrest earlier this year when she was charged with eight counts of illegal voting. In May, she accepted a plea deal and was convicted of four counts in exchange for the other four being dismissed.

She was convicted of voting twice in the 2012 election and voting three times – in 2008, 2011 and 2012 – for her sister, Montez Richardson, who has been in a coma since 2003.... Richardson told the judge she was bothered that Amy Searcy, the Board of Elections director, had criticized her moments before the sentencing....

The conservative, outspoken judge responded with scathing comments, blasting Richardson for suggesting she was being prosecuted because she was a black Democrat helping a black Democratic presidential candidate. “It has nothing to do with race. It has nothing to do with politics. It has nothing to do with disrespecting you. You did this to yourself,” Ruehlman told her.

“You’re very selfish, self-centered. I really believe President Obama, if he were asked about this today, he would be appalled. He would not want anybody to cheat to get elected.”

Ruehlman noted that two others convicted of illegal voting before Richardson got much lighter sentences but stressed their cases were different. The judge noted Richardson deserved a prison sentence, which was one year less than the maximum possible, because she has a lengthy criminal record, schemed repeatedly over five years to cast several illegal votes and used her training and expertise as a poll worker to try to evade detection.

“‘I’m Melowese Richardson. I can take the law into my own hands,’” the judge said, mocking what he believes is Richardson’s attitude.

Richardson previously was convicted of threatening to kill a witness in a criminal case against her brother, of stealing, of drunken driving and of beating someone in a bar fight.

Anything short of a prison sentence, Assistant Prosecutor Bill Anderson told the judge, would be an attack on the voting system. As a poll worker, “her job is actually to protect the integrity and sanctity of the voting system,” Anderson said. “(She) is an ideologue who was hell bent on stuffing the ballot box with as many Obama votes as possible.”

Bill Gallagher, Richardson’s lawyer, suspected she would be sent to prison but was surprised by the sentence. “I thought prison was a real possibility because of her record of 25 years ago,” Gallagher said. “I don’t think that the length of it was any where near what we expected.”

July 19, 2013 in Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

New report suggests ways to eliminate criminal justice racial and ethnic disparities

Racial_disparity_report_featureThe National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has this new press release reporting on a notable new report about American criminal justice systems.   Here is how the press release starts (with a link to the report):

Issued today, a groundbreaking report on a matter of immense public importance — Criminal Justice in the 21st Century: Eliminating Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System — is a critically important and inclusive examination of the profound racial and ethnic disparities in America’s criminal justice system, and concrete ways to overcome them.

This conference report prepared by Consultant Tanya E. Coke is based upon a multi-day, open and frank discussion among a distinguished group of criminal justice experts — prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, scholars, community leaders, and formerly incarcerated advocates.  This three-day convening was held October 17-19, 2012, at the New York County Lawyers’ Association’s historic Home of Law and was co-sponsored by the following organizations: the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, the Foundation for Criminal Justice, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, and the New York County Lawyers’ Association.

The conference was designed not only to acknowledge that racial and ethnic disparities exist in the system, but to examine best practices around the country that address and seek to remedy those disparities.  This report summarizes the candid, sometimes painful panel discussions, and identifies the panoply of remedies that may advance the goal of eliminating the disparate racial and ethnic impact from America’s criminal justice system. More than 2.2 million people are behind bars in America — an absolute and per capita figure that exceeds any other nation on earth. According to the latest available data, nearly 60% of those incarcerated people are Blacks and Latinos, more than double the percentage of these groups in the general population.  And a staggering 65 million adults in the United States — approximately one in four — now have a criminal record, and all of the debilitating consequences of such a record.

As set forth in detail in the report, what lies behind these shocking figures is a system in which racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented as defendants and incarcerated persons.  The report explains the factors that have led to this outcome and, while the conference focused on the criminal justice system in New York City, the recommendations put forward by the participants have broad implications for reform nationally.

July 17, 2013 in Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Notable comments on self-defense laws by Attorney General Eric Holder

Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at great length today about the Zimmerman case in this speech to the NAACP National Convention.  Here is the heart of an interesting legal discussion about self-defense laws that most caught my attention as a criminal law professor who will be teaching a group of brand new new law students about these topics only a few months from now:

Separate and apart from the case that has drawn the nation’s attention, it’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods. These laws try to fix something that was never broken. There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if — and the “if” is important — no safe retreat is available.

But we must examine laws that take this further by eliminating the common sense and age-old requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat, outside their home, if they can do so safely.  By allowing and perhaps encouraging violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety.  The list of resulting tragedies is long and — unfortunately — has victimized too many who are innocent. It is our collective obligation — we must stand our ground — to ensure that our laws reduce violence, and take a hard look at laws that contribute to more violence than they prevent.

We must also seek a dialogue on attitudes about violence and disparities that are too commonly swept under the rug — by honoring the finest traditions established by generations of NAACP leaders and other nonviolent advocates throughout history; and by paying tribute to the young man who lost his life here last year — and so many others whose futures have been cut short in other incidents of gun violence that pass, too often unnoticed, in our streets: by engaging with one another in a way that is at once peaceful, inclusive, respectful — and strong.

As we move forward together, I want to assure you that the Department will continue to act in a manner that is consistent with the facts and the law.  We are committed to doing everything possible to ensure that — in every case, in every circumstance, and in every community — justice must be done.

July 16, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (29) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Full Sixth Circuit grants en banc review in Blewett

A mere days after the Sixth Circuit panel in the Blewett case (which concerns possible retroactive relief for some crack defendants) decided not to alter its original opinion (details here), the full Sixth Circuit today entered this order:

ORDER filed granting petition for en banc rehearing filed by [AUSA] Ms. Candace G. Hill, to reinstate appeals. The previous decision and judgment of this court is vacated, the mandate is stayed. The Clerk has directed the parties to file supplemental briefs. Final briefing will be concluded on August 29, 2013. These cases will be argued before the en banc court on October 9, 2013, 1:30 P.M., EST.

This is not a big surprise, and I think it likely means that the full Sixth Circuit is not too keen on the equal protection arguments used by the Blewett panel.  I fear that the full Sixth Circuti might not also be too keen on the Eighth Amendment arguments I put forward in this case late last month (details here), but that is not likely to deter me from filing additional papers concerning my Eighth Amendment ideas come August. I also may ask the Sixth Circuit for argument time (through I am not especially confident that anything which transpires at oral argument in this kind of case is going to move the opinions of many of the judges).

 Related posts on Blewett:

July 11, 2013 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

After supplemental Blewett briefing, Sixth Circuit panel stands pat

As regular readers likely recall, almost two month ago a split Sixth Circuit panel in US v. Blewett, No. 12-5226 (6th Cir. May 17, 2013) (available here), used equal protection principles to justify giving the new crack statutory sentencings levels of the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive effect.  And last month, as reported in this post, the Sixth Circuit responded to the Government's en banc petition with a letter to the parties express seeking additional briefing "addressing whether the Blewetts’ punishment in this case based on a 100-to-1 ratio of crack to powder cocaine is constitutionally disproportionate in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. "  I reported on the amicus brief covering Eighth Amendment issues that I wrote and filed on behalf of NACDL via this post, and I have been overdue in uploading these supplemental filings sent in by the parties:

Thanks to the fact that I am now in the case via my amicus efforts, I received via the automatic notification system this report on activity in the case this week:

Activity has occurred in the following cases: 12-5226 [USA v. Cornelius Blewett], judge order filed

ORDER filed. The judges of the panel adhere to their respective original opinions. The panel directs that the responses of the parties and the amicus brief of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers be made part of the record in this case. Gilbert S. Merritt, Boyce F. Martin , Jr., and Ronald Lee Gilman, Circuit Judges.

This order is not especially surprising, but it is still noteworthy. And it now puts the onus on other judges of the Sixth Circuit to take up this case en banc within the next month, as the Sixth Circuit rules provides that "[a]ny active judge or any member of the panel whose decision is the subject of the rehearing may request a poll within 14 days from the date of circulation of the petition and the panel's comments. If a poll is requested, 14 days are allowed for voting." In other words, within the next 28 days, we should know for sure if the full Sixth Circuit will rehear the Blewett case or if instead the feds will have to ask SCOTUS to review the consequential work of the Blewett panel. Related posts on Blewett:

July 9, 2013 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack