Tuesday, November 12, 2013
"The Eighth Amendment as a Warrant Against Undeserved Punishment"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Scott Howe now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Should the Eighth Amendment prohibit all undeserved criminal convictions and punishments? There are grounds to argue that it must. Correlation between the level of deserts of the accused and the severity of the sanction represents the very idea of justice to most of us. We want to believe that those branded as criminals deserve blame for their conduct and that they deserve all of the punishments that they receive. A deserts limitation is also key to explaining the decisions in which the Supreme Court has rejected convictions or punishments as disproportional, including several major rulings in the new millennium.
Yet, this view of the Eighth Amendment challenges many current criminal-law doctrines and sentencing practices that favor crime prevention over retributive limits. Mistake-of-law doctrine, felony-murder rules and mandatory-minimum sentencing laws are only a few examples. Why have these laws and practices survived? One answer is that the Supreme Court has largely limited proportionality relief to a few narrow problems involving the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole, and it has avoided openly endorsing the deserts limitation even in cases in which defendants have prevailed. Yet, this Article presents a deeper explanation. I point to four reasons why the doctrine must remain severely stunted in relation to its animating principle. I am to clarify both what the Eighth Amendment reveals about the kind of people we want to be and why the Supreme Court is not able to force us to live up to the aspiration.
Monday, November 11, 2013
"Sentence Appeals in England: Promoting Consistent Sentencing through Robust Appellate ReviewThe title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Briana Rosenbaum now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Unlike in most areas of the law, federal courts of appeals in the United States defer to trial courts on many issues of sentencing law and policy. As a result, the power to decide sentencing law and policy is often at the discretion of individual district court judges. Law reform scholars have long decried the disparity, lack of transparency, and legitimization concerns that this practice raises. These concerns are heightened in the post-Booker sentencing regime, where the advisory nature of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines undermines those Guidelines’ ability to further sentencing consistency.
The deferential approach to federal sentence appeals is in sharp contrast to the approach in England, where the appellate court conducts de novo review of sentencing law and policy to develop a common law of sentencing that is independent of the English sentencing guidelines. The English model of appellate review suggests a new way to design the role of appellate courts in the federal system: from bodies that merely enforce guidelines to further consistency of sentencing outcomes, to bodies that develop sentencing law to further consistency of sentencing approach.
In this paper, I explore the primary functional, institutional, and normative arguments behind the resistance to robust appellate review in the federal appellate courts and study the English model as a means of evaluating these critiques. Ultimately, I suggest that the federal courts of appeals borrow England’s “mixed deference approach” to sentence appeals, including de novo review of sentencing law and principles. Doing so will promote greater sentencing consistency without either over-enforcement of the Guidelines or unwarranted encroachment of sentencing discretion.
Wednesday, November 06, 2013
Unanimous Supreme Court of New Hampshire upholds state's first modern capital conviction (with proportionality review to follow)As reported in this AP piece, "New Hampshire's top court upheld the sentence of the state's only death row inmate, clearing the way for a convicted cop killer to become the first person executed in New Hampshire since 1939." Here are more of the basics:
Michael Addison, 33, was convicted of gunning down Michael Briggs in 2006 as the 35-year-old Manchester police officer was attempting to arrest him on a string of armed robbery charges. The high court's unanimous ruling came nearly a year after it heard unprecedented daylong arguments in the first death penalty appeal to come before it in 50 years....
Of all 22 issues raised by Addison's lawyers on appeal, the justices concluded, "We find no reversible error."
The Supreme Court will next schedule arguments on its fairness review — weighing Addison's sentence against those meted out in 49 cases around the country between 2000 and 2009 in which a police officer was shot in the line of duty.
Addison's lawyers objected to the scope of the comparison, saying it ignores the only other New Hampshire capital case in recent history. That case involved a wealthy white man — John Brooks — who plotted and paid for the killing of a handyman he thought had stolen from him. Brooks was spared a death sentence in 2008 — the same year Addison was sentenced to die....
Attorney General Joseph Foster said the magnitude of the court's 243-page ruling is appropriate given the magnitude of the loss suffered by the Briggs' family. He did not comment on the ruling itself, noting that aspects of the case remain pending.
Briggs was 15 minutes from the end of his shift on Oct. 16, 2006, when he and his partner — both on bicycle patrol — confronted Addison in a dark alley. Jurors found that Addison shot Briggs in the head at close range to avoid arrest. Addison was later convicted of going on a violent rampage in the days before Briggs' death, including two armed robberies and a drive-by shooting....
The last person executed in New Hampshire was Howard Long, an Alton shopkeeper who molested and beat a 10-year-old boy to death. He was hanged — still a viable form of execution in New Hampshire if lethal injection is not possible.
As the AP piece revelas, the massive ruling in NH v. Addison (available here) does not conclusively affirm the defendant's death sentence. Here is why, as the NH Supreme Court explains in the introduction to its lengthy opinion:
With respect to the issues raised by the defendant on appeal, we find no reversible error. Accordingly, we affirm the defendant’s conviction for capital murder. Furthermore, we conclude that the sentence of death was not imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice or any other arbitrary factor, and that the evidence was sufficient to support the jury’s findings of aggravating circumstances. We note that our review of the defendant’s sentence is not yet complete. Only after additional briefing and oral argument on comparative proportionality under RSA 630:5, XI(c) will we conclude our review of the defendant’s sentence of death, at which time we will issue a further opinion.
Tuesday, November 05, 2013
New Urban Institute report recommends policies to reduce federal prison growthAs detailed via this webpage, The Urban Institute has today released this notable new report titled "Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System." Here is how the webpage summarizes the report's content and coverage:
Here is the conclusion of this report's executive summary, which provides some details about its specific recommended reforms:
The federal prison population has risen dramatically over the past few decades, as more people are sentenced to prison and for longer terms. The result? Dangerously overcrowded facilities and an increasing expense to taxpayers. In a new Urban Institute report, the authors project the population and cost savings impact of a variety of strategies designed to reduce the inmate population without compromising public safety. They find that the most effective approach is a combination of strategies, including early release for current prisoners and reducing the length of stay for future offenders, particularly those convicted of drug trafficking.
[T]o yield a meaningful impact on population and costs, a mix of reforms to sentencing, prosecution, and early release policies are required. The most effective way to reduce overcrowding is to lower mandatory minimums for drugs, which, alone, would reduce overcrowding to the lowest it has been in decades. Add two more options — retroactively applying the Fair Sentencing Act to crack offenders already in BOP custody and providing a broader earned time credit for program participation — and the BOP could save $3 billion. Updating the formula for good time credits and providing early release for certain nonviolent older inmates would lead to an additional 5,000 immediate releases, while lowering the truth-in-sentencing requirement for new BOP admissions who exhibit exemplary behavior while in custody would further reduce the future prison population. Even with a mix of reforms, federal prisons may continue to be overcrowded. But a smart combination of policies will save taxpayers billions, make prisons less dangerous, and improve the quality and reach of programs designed to keep inmates from offending again.
When and how will SCOTUS take up Miller retroactivity issues?The question in the title of this post is promoted by this local piece reporting on reactions to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision last week (reported here) that its state teens given mandatory LWOP before the US Supreme Court's Miller ruling should not get any retroactive benefit from that decision. Here is an excerpt:
There seems little reason to doubt SCOTUS will be taking up this issue before too long. But when and how is a real interesting question, not only because the facts of the case taken up by the Justices could influence the public and legal discourse, but also because arguments about Miller retroactivity could (and I think should) prompt some reconsideration and modification of Teague habeas review jurisprudence.
Nicholas White was 17 when a judge sentenced him to life in prison without parole for killing his father, Robert Grant White, 43, in 1998 in their home along Route 356.
Last year, the Supreme Court declared such sentences unconstitutional, saying they amount to cruel and unusual punishment. But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last week ruled, 4-3, that the opinion does not apply retroactively to cases such as White's that were final before June 2012.
The decision means White and more than 450 Pennsylvania inmates, including as many as 40 from Allegheny County, are not eligible for resentencing. “I can't believe that it's fair — that if your sentence came down one day, you get nothing, and if it came down the next day, you get a new hearing,” said Marc Bookman, director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation in Philadelphia.
“But there is a silver lining here, and that is that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court does have another round of review, and that is with the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Turtle Creek attorney David Chontos. He represents Jeremy Melvin, 26, of McKeesport, who was 16 in 2005 when a Mercer County judge sentenced him to life without parole for killing a counselor at George Junior Republic, a private residential juvenile treatment center.
Several legal experts said the case likely is bound for the Supreme Court, because Iowa, Mississippi and Illinois deemed the high court's ruling retroactive, although Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan and Florida have said it is not.
Thursday, October 31, 2013
New report (from small government groups) urges Louisiana to reform its toughest sentencing lawsAs reported in this AP article, headlined "New study calls on La. to change sentencing laws," a notable group of libertarian-leaning organizations has produced a big report urging the state with the highest rate of incarceration to significantly scale back its most extreme sentencing laws. Here are the basics:
The full 36-page report, titled "Smart on Sentencing, Smart on Crime: An Argument for Reforming Louisiana’s Determinate Sentencing Laws," is available at this link. The reports executive summary can be accessed here, and it gets started this way:
Louisiana should shrink its prison population and costs by repealing minimum mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes, said a study released Tuesday by several right-leaning policy organizations. The groups suggest that Louisiana could maintain public safety while also reducing a per capita incarceration rate that is the highest in the nation, by making changes to the habitual offender law and locking up fewer people for nonviolent offenses.
The Reason Foundation, a libertarian organization based in California, made the suggestions along with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a Louisiana-based conservative organization, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. "Harsh, unfair sentences are putting too many Louisianans in jail for far too long, and at a terrible cost to taxpayers and society," Julian Morris, vice president of Reason Foundation and co-author of the study, said in a statement.
Nonviolent offenders account for the majority of the state's inmates, the report says. By shrinking its prison population, the study says Louisiana could invest more money in rehabilitation programs for those who remain in jail.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration said it has asked the state's sentencing commission to review the report's recommendations. Any changes would need approval from state lawmakers.
Over the past several decades, Louisiana legislators have passed a number of determinate sentencing laws aimed at reducing crime and incapacitating certain types of offenders. Because these laws have been disproportionately applied to nonviolent crimes, nonviolent offenders now account for the majority of inmates and admissions to prison in the state. This has produced a number of unfortunate consequences, such as an increase in the state’s prison population from 21,007 in 1992 to 39,709 in 2011 and a $315 million increase in correction expenditures during the same time period, from $442.3 million (in 2011 dollars) in 1992 to $757.4 million in 2011. Meanwhile, there is little evidence that the laws have done anything to reduce Louisiana’s violent crime rate, which remains considerably above both the national average and the rates in its neighboring states. Today, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country, with 868 of every 100,000 of its citizens in prison.
Louisiana’s citizens could benefit considerably from changes to the way in which convicted criminals are sentenced. As things stand, nonviolent offenders who pose little or no threat to society are routinely sentenced to long terms in prison with no opportunity for parole, probation or suspension of sentence. In most cases, this is a direct result of the state’s determinate sentencing laws. These prisoners consume disproportionate amounts of Louisiana’s scarce correctional resources, which could be better utilized to ensure that violent criminals are more effectively kept behind bars.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Split Pennsylvania Supreme Court rules that Miller does not apply retroactively
Thanks to How Appealing, I see that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania today finally handed down its long awaited ruling as to whether the hundreds of state teens given mandatory LWOP before the Supreme Court's Miller ruling would get any retroactive benefit from that decision. The 4-3 split decision consists of a this majority opinion, this concurring opinion, and this dissenting opinion.
Here is how the majority opinion concludes:
All Justices of this Court and the United States Supreme Court share the sentiment that “[d]etermining the appropriate sentence for a teenager convicted of murder presents grave and challenging questions of morality and social policy.” Miller, ___ U.S. at ___, 132 S. Ct. at 2477 (Roberts, C.J., dissenting, joined by Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, JJ.). Our role in establishing social policy in the arena is a limited one, however. Here, applying settled principles of appellate review, nothing in Appellant’s arguments persuades us that Miller’s proscription of the imposition of mandatory life-without-parole sentences upon offenders under the age of eighteen at the time their crimes were committed must be extended to those whose judgments of sentence were final as of the time of Miller’s announcement. See generally Geter, 115 So. 3d at 377 (“Clearly and unequivocally, the Supreme Court distinguished between the substantive determinations of a categorical bar prohibiting a ‘penalty for a class of offenders or type of crime,’ as in Roper and Graham, and the procedural determination in Miller that merely requires consideration of mitigating factors of youth in the sentencing process.” (quoting Miller, ___ U.S. at ___, 132 S. Ct. at 2471)). See generally LAFAVE, 1 CRIM. PROC. §2.11(e) (“Teague has made new rulings very rarely applicable retroactively on habeas review[.]”).
Here is a key part of start of the concurring opinion by the Chief Justice: "I write separately to express my own view of what, if anything, might be done to mitigate the seeming inequity that is a result of the High Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, __ U.S. __, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012). The 'seeming inequity' here arises from the fact that the prospect of an individualized, discretionary judicial determination of whether a juvenile murderer should ever be afforded parole eligibility depends solely upon the happenstance of the moment that the defendant’s conviction became final."
And here is the first sentence of the dissent: "While I find merit in much of the Majority’s analysis, I ultimately conclude that Miller v. Alabama, __ U.S. __, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), should apply retroactively to juveniles sentenced to life without parole on timely collateral as well as direct review because I find Miller to be an effectively substantive rule."UPDATE: How Appealing provides links via this posting to some local media coverage of this Cunningham ruling, including this Allentown Morning Call article which provides some sense of the impact and reactions to the ruling:
The decision upholds the sentence of Ian Cunningham, a man serving life in prison for a murder he committed when he was 17. It also affects as many as 450 Pennsylvania inmates including six from Lehigh County.
Ultimately, the question will have to be decided by the federal courts, and may end up back before the U.S. Supreme Court, said Kimberly Makoul, an Allentown attorney who represents Joseph G. Romeri, who is 35 years into a life sentence for bludgeoning to death an 80-year-old city woman in 1978, when he was 16. "There is still hope," Makoul said. "It's not over yet and all hope certainly isn't lost."
Marsha Levick, an attorney with the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said the Pennsylvania high court's decision misses the ethical importance of the federal decision. "When the U.S. Supreme Court puts down a marker … it is morally unconscionable to leave any juvenile offender on the other side of that marker," she said....
The Pennsylvania court's decision was welcomed by families whose loved ones were killed by juveniles. Since the federal decision, they have been bracing for new sentencing hearings that they feared would reopen old wounds by forcing them to relive painful memories. "It's really good to hear. Really," said Darryl Romig, whose 12-year-old daughter, Danni Reese, was raped and strangled in 2003 in Allentown by a 17-year-old killer who received an automatic life sentence.
Brian A. Bahr, now 27 and jailed at the State Correctional Institution-Mahanoy, is among six once-young killers in Lehigh County whose appeals were put on hold pending Cunningham's case. "I'm just glad that he doesn't have the chance to be resentenced," Romig said in a telephone interview. "He did what he did and he deserved what he got."
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Detailing new state reform efforts to ensure kids get treated as kids by criminal justice systemToday's New York Times has this big story about modern juvenile justice reforms under the headline "A Bid to Keep Youths Out of Adult Prisons." The piece is mostly focused on a recent reform in Colorado, but here is an excerpt discussing the national trends:
In a reversal of the tough-on-crime legislation that swept the nation in the late 1980s and ’90s, nearly half of the states have now enacted one or more laws that nudge more young offenders into the juvenile justice system, divert them from being automatically tried as adults and keep them from being placed in adult jails and prisons.
Sarah Brown, a director of the criminal justice program at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the shift stems from a decline in juvenile crime, concerns about the costs of adult prisons and a growing understanding of adolescent brain development showing that the young have a greater potential for rehabilitation.
The Supreme Court has increasingly taken neurological research into account on juvenile justice issues — most recently in a 2012 case, Miller v. Alabama, which barred mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for those who committed their crimes before they turned 18. Justice Elena Kagan’s majority opinion in the case cited adolescents’ “diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change.”
Eleven states, including Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia, have passed laws that keep most young offenders out of adult jails and prisons. Eight states, including California, Missouri and Washington, passed laws that alter mandatory minimum sentencing for young offenders charged as adults. Four — Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and Mississippi — have broadened the powers of their juvenile courts, enabling them to take cases of juveniles who would have automatically been tried as adults. And 12 states, including Arizona, Nevada, Ohio and Utah, have adjusted the laws governing the transfer of young offenders into the adult system in ways that make it more likely that they will be tried as juveniles.
Many of these bills have passed with bipartisan support in states both Republican and Democratic and with the testimony of the young who are affected and their families, said Liz Ryan, the president of Campaign for Youth Justice, which recently issued a report on the shifts.
October 29, 2013 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack
Monday, October 28, 2013
"Criminals and Campaign Cash: The Impact of Judicial Campaign Spending on Criminal Defendants"The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today by the Center for American Progress. At this link, one can find a summary of the report's highlights, from which I have drawn this excerpt:
As state supreme court campaigns become more expensive and more partisan, the fear of being portrayed as “soft on crime” is leading courts to rule more often for prosecutors and against criminal defendants.
That is the disturbing finding of this Center for American Progress study, which explores the impact on the criminal justice system of the explosion in judicial campaign cash and the growing use of political attack ads in state supreme court elections, which have increased pressure on elected judges to appear “tough on crime.” In carrying out this study, CAP collected data on supreme courts that, between 2000 and 2007, saw their first election in which the candidates and independent spenders spent more than $3 million. This includes high courts in Illinois, Mississippi, Washington, Georgia, Wisconsin, Nevada, and West Virginia. For each of these courts, CAP examined 4,684 rulings in criminal cases for a time period starting five years before a given state’s first $3 million high court election and ending five years after that election.
The findings reveal a clear trend: As campaign cash increased, the courts studied began to rule more often in favor of prosecutors and against criminal defendants....
These results suggest that, just as judges are more likely to rule against criminal defendants as elections approach, state supreme courts are more likely to rule for the state as the amount of money in high court elections increases.
These findings have important implications for the debates over reforming our criminal justice system. In the past 50 years, the U.S. government has cracked down on drug crimes and provided financial incentives for states to do the same. The so-called War on Drugs has resulted in over-incarceration and the growth of private prisons, which has given certain companies a financial incentive in maintaining this status quo. But as the financial cost of the nation’s drug war has become clear, Americans are debating whether our punitive approach is working. The federal government is scaling back the use of harsh mandatory minimums, and some states, including Georgia, are experimenting with alternative sentencing. If reformers want to stop over-incarceration and ensure that criminal defendants are treated fairly, they must also speak out about the politicization of judicial elections and the tarring of judges as being soft on crime in attack ads, a practice that compels courts to rule for the state and against defendants.
The enormous sums of money spent in recent judicial elections have fueled an increase in attack ads targeting judges. State supreme court candidates raised more than $200 million between 2000 and 2009 — two and a half times more than in the 1990s. A record $28 million was spent on television ads in 2012 high court elections, with half of this money coming in the form of independent spending, according to Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice. These independent spenders are more likely than the candidates’ campaigns to run attack ads.
Most of these attack ads allege that a certain judge is soft on crime, telling voters that he or she ruled in favor of a violent criminal without any context or discussion of the legal issue at stake. A single ruling in a case, replete with gruesome facts, can provide fodder for an attack ad. A 2012 candidate for the Ohio Supreme Court, for example, was attacked by the state Republican Party, which alleged in an ad that the judge — Democrat Bill O’Neill — had “expressed sympathy for rapists” in one of his opinions. During the 2004 West Virginia Supreme Court election, a group funded by coal mogul Don Blankenship warned that an incumbent justice “voted to release” a “child rapist” and then “agreed to let this convicted child rapist work as a janitor in a West Virginia school.” Another campaign ad, this one in the 2012 Louisiana Supreme Court race, claimed that one of the candidates had “suspended the sentence of a cocaine dealer, of a man who killed a state trooper, two more drug dealers, and over half the sentence of a child rapist.”
These attack ads distort rulings in criminal cases to play on voters’ fears, and they create political pressure on judges to rule in favor of the state. Moreover, judicial candidates themselves are running ads that proclaim their tough-on-crime approach, even though judicial ethics rules prohibit candidates from expressing a bias for or against certain litigants, including criminal defendants.... [T]his report briefly outlines how media images shape attitudes on crime and describes how these attack ads became more prevalent. The report then looks at the special interests bankrolling these ads and profiles four of the states studied — Illinois, Mississippi, Washington, and Georgia — and the experiences of each high court with attack ads and their fallout.
"Is Guilt Dispositive? Federal Habeas after Martinez"The title of this post is the title of this notable new article about federal habeas corpus law and practice available via SSRN and authored by Justin Marceau. Here is the abstract:
Federal habeas review of criminal convictions is not supposed to be a second opportunity to adjudge guilt. It has been said, by Oliver Wendall Holmes among others, that the sole question on federal habeas is whether the prisoner’s constitutional rights were violated. By the early 1970s, however, scholars criticized this rights-based view of habeas and sounded the alarm that post-conviction review had become too far removed from questions of innocence. Most famously, in 1970 Judge Friendly criticized the breadth of habeas corpus by posing a single question: Is innocence irrelevant? In his view habeas review that focused exclusively on questions of rights in isolation from questions of innocence was misguided.
Over the last forty years the habeas landscape has changed so dramatically — both through statutory and common law limits on the writ — that it is appropriate to ask a very different question: Is guilt dispositive? Both substantive law and habeas procedure has evolved so as to substantially disadvantage a guilty habeas petitioner. In many cases regardless of the merits of the constitutional claim, strong evidence of guilt is dispositive in ensuring that relief is denied. A recent trilogy of cases from the last couple of years — Holland v. Florida, Maples v. Thomas, and most importantly, Martinez v. Ryan — signal a potential shift in the Court’s innocence orientation. This Article explores the potential impact of these decisions and in particular argues that they may provide a roadmap for a proceduralist approach to modern habeas — that is, habeas review that prioritizes fair procedures over innocence. The impact of Friendly’s call for greater focus on innocence was gradual but profound, and this Article argues that the Martinez-trilogy may be similarly important in reversing habeas’ four-decade-long infatuation with innocence.
Thursday, October 24, 2013
Michigan Senate passes (prospective-only) Miller fix proposalAs reported in this local article, headlined "Michigan juvenile lifers: Senate moves to fix unconstitutional law, not offer resentencing," the Michigan legislature is finally making some progress on reforming unconstitutional aspects of its juvenile sentencing scheme. Here are the details:
The Michigan Senate on Thursday unanimously approved legislation that would allow some minors convicted of murder to avoid life in prison -- unless they are already behind bars and have exhausted appeal.
Senate Bills 318 and 319, now headed to the House for consideration, would update Michigan laws that currently allow mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for offenders who were under 18 at the time of their crime....
Under the Senate proposal, prosecutors could still seek life sentences without the possibility of parole for minors. But judges, after considering aggravating and mitigating circumstances, would be given new discretion to impose a prison term of between 25 and 60 years. With good behavior, an individual convicted at 15 could have the chance to request a parole hearing and make their case for release when they reached 40.
The bills would not apply retroactively, meaning that "juvenile lifers" already behind bars and out of appeals would not have the opportunity for parole. Michigan is home to more than 360 juvenile lifers, the second-highest total in the nation.
State Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Detroit, proposed an amendment that would have added retroactivity to the legislation, but sponsoring Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, argued against it, and the amendment was shot down. "The bill brings us into compliance with the Supreme court ruling," said Jones. "It does not go into retroactivity because they didn't address that."
Advocates say that juvenile lifers deserve the same opportunities for release as future convicts, but victim families have argued that opening old cases would also open old wounds.
The Supreme Court did not address the retroactivity question, and state and federal courts have offered different answers. U.S. District Court Judge John Corbet O'Meara has said Michigan juvenile lifers deserve a "fair and meaningful possibility of parole," but he has not yet determined what that possibility should look like.
State Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland, has introduced House measures that include retroactivity for juvenile lifers. But those bills, the subjects of an emotional hearing in August and opposition from Attorney General Bill Schuette, have not advanced out of committee.
October 24, 2013 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
In dissent, Judge Bright laments Eighth Circuit affirmance of 115 months in prison PLUS two life sentences for repeat bank robber
Dissenting from a panel affirmance today in US v. Scott, No. 12-3131 (8th Cir. Oct. 22, 2013) (available here), Judge Bright expressed these (and other) notable points about what he clearly considers an unreasonable sentence:
The sentence of 115 months in prison plus two life sentences imposed on Michael Scott by the district court represents a prime example of what may be called “gilding the lily.” It is unreasonable and excessive. For all practical purposes, the roughly 39-year mandatory minimum sentence in this case — for a defendant who is 56 at the time of sentencing — would have itself amounted to a sentence of life imprisonment. I ask what more is required. The sentence in this case is unreasonable and simply represents an effort to send a message of being tough on crime. But that’s not the purpose of a sentence....
As an appellate judge, I add another observation. The federal courts are now entering a new era of sentencing. Eric H. Holder, Jr., the United States Attorney General, has recently called for a new approach to criminal sentencing in the federal courts. The Attorney General emphasized the harsh reality that, as it stands today, “our system is in too many respects broken.” Eric Holder, Attorney General of the United States, United States Department of Justice, Remarks at the Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates (Aug. 12, 2013), available at http://www.justice.gov/iso/opa/ag/speeches/2013/ag-speech-130812.html. Indeed, I agree with the Attorney General that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” Id.
The clearly excessive sentence imposed in this case illustrates very graphically the broken criminal justice system in the federal courts. Here, had Scott received a 39-year sentence — which the parties agreed was the mandatory minimum sentence in this case — he would be in prison until he was 95 years old. Yet the district court felt the need to impose a 115-month sentence followed by two life sentences. The district court justified the sentence by emphasizing Scott’s “criminal history and the need to protect the public.” But just how much protection does the public need from a 95- year-old man — assuming Scott were to live that long? According to the National Vital Statistics Reports, at the time he was sentenced, Scott was expected to live for another 27 years, or until he is about 83 years old.... A 39-year sentence would have been more than enough to serve as a deterrent and an appropriate punishment for a series of bank robberies, during which no one fired a gun and no one was physically injured. But instead, the district court imposed a substantially unreasonable sentence that is greater than necessary to accomplish the goals of sentencing. See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). This sentence is not justified and is improper and I will not affirm a sentence that is obviously too harsh and imposed simply to appear tough on crime.
I would reverse and remand this case with instruction to the district court to impose a sentence no greater than a 39-year sentence.
Can a state continue with execution plans for murderers still on death row after repeal of capital punishment?
The question in the title of this post is being considered today by the Connecticut Supreme Court, as explained in this AP article:
The Connecticut Supreme Court [today] plans to take up the appeal of Daniel Webb, who is currently awaiting execution for the 1989 kidnapping and murder of Diane Gellenbeck, a Connecticut bank executive. Webb wants his death sentence overturned based on the 2012 law that abolished the death penalty in Connecticut, except for those who had already been sentenced to die.
His lawyers argue that the law violates Webb's constitutional rights to equal protection by treating him differently than others charged with similar crimes. They say it also shows the death penalty is inconsistent with current standards of decency in Connecticut and no longer serves any valid purpose.
Given that many folks (including plenty of liberal-leaning ones) seem to believe that it is not constitutionally problematic to have federal crack defendants still subject to excessively long mandatory minimum prison sentences even after Congress reduced these sentences, I assume that most folks also likely believe that it is not constitutionally problematic to have Connecticut's murder defendants still subject to execution even after the state legislature repealed the death penalty. It will be interesting to see if a majority of the Connecticut Supreme Court shares such a perspective (and whether, if it does, federal courts will also reach the same conclusion during inevitable additional appeals).
Monday, October 21, 2013
"Federal judges extend Gov. Brown's prison crowding deadline -- again"The title of this post is the headline of this afternoon report from the Los Angeles Times concerning the latest development in the long-running dickering over how California is dealing with a federal court order to reduce its prison population. Here are the details:
A panel of federal judges has given Gov. Jerry Brown an additional 28 days to come up with long-term solutions to the state's prison crowding problems.
In an order issued Monday, the judges moved the deadline for California to remove about 9,600 inmates from state lockups to Feb. 24, adding almost a month to their last deadline of Jan. 27. It previously was Dec. 31. They also ordered the state to continue negotiating for solutions with lawyers representing California's 134,000 prisoners.
Monday was the deadline for a state appeals judge, Peter Siggins, who was assigned to mediate those confidential talks, to report on the two sides’ progress. Based on Siggins' confidential update and recommendations, the federal panel ordered the negotiations to continue, with another update due Nov. 18, the jurists said in their signed order. The judges extended their first deadline and ordered the discussions after Brown asked them last month for three more years in which to reduce inmate numbers.
Thursday, October 17, 2013
"The Federal Death Penalty and the Constitutionality of Capital Punishment"The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Scott Howe recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The federal death penalty results in few executions but is central to the larger story of capital punishment in the United States. In the last decade, federal statutes governing the federal death penalty seem to have exerted outsize influence with the Supreme Court in its development of “proportionality” doctrine, the rules by which the Justices confine the use of capital punishment under the Eighth Amendment. In three cases rejecting capital punishment for mentally retarded offenders, juvenile offenders and child rapists, the Court noted that federal death-penalty statutes would have conferred protection against federal death prosecutions.
These decisions, and current federal death-penalty law, suggest that the Court could resolve certain nuanced proportionality problems by restricting the death penalty in the states. However, for observers who hope to see the Court eventually use proportionality analysis to abolish the death penalty or greatly restrict its use, these developments seem to carry mostly negative implications. The relatively broad application of federal death-penalty law would weigh against sweeping proportionality restrictions on the death penalty for murder. However, the article explains why the Court’s proportionality analysis fails adequately to consider low execution rates and why the rarity of federal executions, if persistent, should undermine any notion that federal death-penalty law and practice supports a national consensus favoring capital punishment for ordinary murder.
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
Monday, October 14, 2013
Florida legislature told to "End confusion on juvenile sentencing"The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this effective recent editorial from the Tampa Bay Times, which makes these points about the post-Miller mess in Florida:
By reinstating the original sentence of life in prison without parole for Nicholas Lindsey on Friday, a Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court judge entered muddy legal waters. Lindsey and other juveniles convicted of murder continue to be sentenced under a state statute that is now unconstitutional as applied to them. There is no clear road map for judges, because the Florida Legislature has failed to bring state law into conformance with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Lindsey's reconsidered sentence for shooting and killing a St. Petersburg police officer will likely be challenged, wasting resources and prolonging the pain for the victim's family. Had the Legislature acted responsibly, the courts would not be operating in the dark and creating law as they go.
State courts are puzzling through what to do with juveniles who were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced under state law that provides for a death sentence or life in prison without the possibility of parole. Minors cannot be sentenced to death because of a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Last year, the court ruled that a life sentence without parole cannot be mandatory for juvenile offenders — people who committed their crime before reaching 18 years old. The court said that in light of a young person's lack of maturity and capacity to change as he grows up, courts must be permitted to take these circumstances into account in sentencing. Florida law gives judges no discretion to impose a lesser sentence....
Other circuit court judges have ruled inconsistently. A judge in Hillsborough County recently resentenced Amer Ejak, now 20 years old, to life without parole for clubbing and strangling a man in 2009 — the same sentence Ejak originally received. But compare that to a teen murderer in Pasco County who was sentenced last month to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years, even though state law makes no provision for it. An August ruling by the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach said that the only legal sentence for juveniles guilty of capital murder is life with the possibility of parole after 25 years, but that decision is only controlling precedent for part of the state.
The Florida Legislature surely knew that by not rewriting state law to reflect the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and giving judges the opportunity to impose lesser sentences it would cause confusion and result in disparate treatment of juvenile offenders across the state. Lawmakers shifted their responsibility to the courts. The Florida Supreme Court will have to bring clarity to the law. In the meantime, trial courts faced with resentencing some of Florida's more than 200 inmates who were convicted and sentenced on murder charges should follow the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling as best they can.
October 14, 2013 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Sunday, October 13, 2013
Parole precogs: computerized risk assessments impacting state parole decision-makingPredicting who is likely to commit a crime in the future is no easy task, as fans of "Minority Report" know well. But states that retain discretionary parole release mechanisms to some extent require its officials to do just that. And, as this lengthy Wall Street Journal article explains, state officials are (in my view, wisely) relying more and more on computerized risk assessment instruments when making parole decisions. The WSJ piece is headlined "State Parole Boards Use Software to Decide Which Inmates to Release: Programs look at prisoners' biographies for patterns that predict future crime," and here are excerpts:
Driven to cut ballooning corrections costs, more states are requiring parole boards to make better decisions about which convicts to keep in prison and which to release. Increasingly, parole officials are adopting data- and evidence-based methods, many involving software programs, to calculate an inmate's odds of recidivism.
The policy changes are leading to a quiet and surprising shift across the U.S. in how parole decisions are made. Officials accustomed to relying heavily on experience and intuition when making parole rulings now find they also must take computerized inmate assessments and personality tests into account.
In the traditional system, factors like the severity of a crime or whether an offender shows remorse weigh heavily in parole rulings, criminologists say. By contrast, automated assessments based on inmate interviews and biographical data such as age at first arrest are designed to recognize patterns that may predict future crime and make release decisions more objective, advocates of the new tools say.
In the past several years, at least 15 states including Louisiana, Kentucky, Hawaii and Ohio have implemented policies requiring corrections systems to adopt modern risk-assessment methods, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts' Public Safety Performance Project. California is using computerized inmate assessments to make decisions about levels of supervision for individual parolees. This year, West Virginia began requiring that all felons receive risk assessments; judges receive the reports before sentencing with the option to incorporate the scores into their decisions.
Such methods can contradict the instincts of corrections officials, by classifying violent offenders as a lower recidivism risk than someone convicted of a nonviolent robbery or drug offense. Criminologists say people convicted of crimes like murder often are older when considered for release, making them less likely to reoffend. Inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes like property theft, meanwhile, tend to be younger, more impulsive and adventurous—all predictors of repeat criminality....
Wider acceptance of computerized risk assessments, along with other measures to reduce state corrections budgets, has coincided with the first declines in the national incarceration rate in more than a decade.
The number of inmates in state and federal facilities fell nearly 1% in 2011 to 1.6 million, after edging down 0.1% in the prior year. The 2011 decline came entirely from state prisons, which shed 21,600 inmates, offsetting an increase of 6,600 federal prisoners. Preliminary 2012 data shows an even larger fall in state inmates of 29,000.
Experts say one reason for the decline is that fewer parolees are returning to prison. About 12% of parolees were re-incarcerated at some point in 2011 compared with 15% in 2006, representing the fifth straight year of decline, according to Justice Department data.
Texas, by reputation a tough-on-crime state, has been consistently using risk assessment longer than many states and is boosting the number of prisoners it paroles each year. With its current system, in use since 2001, it released 37% of parole applicants in 2012 versus 28% in 2005 — some 10,000 more prisoners released in 2012.
Officials in Michigan credit computerized assessments, introduced in 2006 and adopted statewide in 2008, with helping reduce the state's prison population by more than 15% from its peak in 2007 and with lowering the three-year recidivism rate by 10 percentage points since 2005.
Still, experts say it is difficult to measure the direct impact of risk prediction because states have also taken other steps to rein in corrections costs, such as reducing penalties for drug offenses and transferring inmates to local jails.
Michigan's assessments withstood a legal challenge in 2011, when prosecutors sought to reverse the parole of Michelle Elias, who had served 25 years for murdering her lover's husband. A lower court, siding with the prosecutor, ruled the parole board hadn't placed enough weight on the "egregious nature of the crime," court documents say. The Michigan Court of Appeals overturned the decision and upheld Ms. Elias's release.
Yet earlier this month, the same appeals court ruled the Michigan parole board had abused its discretion by releasing a man convicted of molesting his daughter. He hadn't received sex-offender therapy while in prison, but three assessments, including one using [the computer program] Compas, had deemed him a low risk of reoffending. The appeals court, in an unpublished decision that echoed a lower court, said that Compas could be manipulated if presented "with inadequate data or individuals who lie."
The Compas software designer, Northpointe Inc., says the assessments are meant to improve, not replace, human intelligence. Tim Brennan, chief scientist at Northpointe, a unit of Volaris Group, said the Compas system has features that help detect lying, but data-entry mistakes or inmate deceptiveness can affect accuracy, he said. The company says that officials should override the system's decisions at rates of 8% to 15%.
Many assessment systems lean heavily on research by criminologists including Edward Latessa, professor at the Center for Criminal Justice Research at the University of Cincinnati. Parole boards, typically staffed with political appointees, have lacked the information, training and time to make sound decisions about who should be released, Dr. Latessa said. The process, he said, is one factor contributing to the population surge in the nation's prisons, including a fivefold increase in the number of prisoners nationwide from 1978 to 2009, according to the Department of Justice.
"The problem with a judge or a parole board is they can't pull together all the information they need to make good decisions," said Dr. Latessa, who developed an open-source software assessment system called ORAS used in Ohio and other states. Ohio adopted ORAS last year as the result of legislation aimed at addressing overcrowded prisons and containing corrections spending. Dr. Latessa does paid consulting work with state corrections agencies but isn't paid for use of the system. "They look at one or two things," he said. "Good assessment tools look at 50 things."
Some assessments analyze as many as 100 factors, including whether the offender is married, the age of first arrest and whether he believes his conviction is unfair. In Texas, a rudimentary risk-assessment measures just 10 factors. Data gathered in interviews with inmates is transmitted to the offices of Texas parole board members, who vote remotely, often by computer.
Parole officials say assessment scores are just one factor they consider. Some experts say relying on statistics can result in racial bias, even though questionnaires don't explicitly ask about race. Data such as how many times a person has been incarcerated can act as an unfair proxy for race, said Bernard Harcourt, a University of Chicago professor of law and political science. "There's a real connection between race and prior criminal history, and a real link between prior criminal history and prediction," Mr. Harcourt said. "The two combine in a toxic and combustive way."
Christopher Baird, former head of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, said statistical tools are best used to help set supervision guidelines for parolees rather than determine prison sentences or decide who should be released. "It's very important to realize what their limitations are," said Mr. Baird, who developed one of the earliest risk-assessment tools, for the state of Wisconsin in the late 1970s. "That's lost when you start introducing the word 'prediction' and start applying that to individual cases."
October 13, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | 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
Wednesday, October 09, 2013
District Judge Graham gets in a final word on child porn sentencing despite Sixth Circuit reversals
I am about to head off line for the bulk of the day in order to head down to the Queen City in order to watch the full en banc Sixth Circuit consider crack sentencing modification rules in Blewett. (I hope late tonight to report on what I see in the argument, perhaps with a prediction as to the outcome.)
For my last word before I go to watch the Sixth Circuit in action, I am pleased to post a recent opinion by US District Judge James Graham that provides its own kind of last word about the Sixth Circuit's recent sentencing work in a child pornography downloading case that the Sixth Circuit took out of Judge Graham's hands. The opinion in US v. Childs (which can be downloaded below) is relatively brief, and it starts and winds down this way:
This is a disturbing case. Defendant is charged with one count of possession of child pornography. I am called upon to decide whether to accept a plea agreement which requires me to impose a sentence which is roughly only one sixth of the lowest sentence recommended by the United States Sentencing Guidelines (“the Guidelines” or “U.S.S.G.”). This is disturbing not because I disagree with the sentence, but because I am convinced that under the law of the Sixth Circuit announced in United States v. Bistline, 665 F.3d 758, 761-64 (6th Cir. 2012)(“Bistline I”), I would not have been free to select such a sentence without the government’s agreement....
The Sixth Circuit's decision in Bistline I blurs the distinction between mandatory and advisory by requiring more deference to congressionally created guidelines than that accorded to Sentencing Commission-created guidelines. Just what implications this might have under Apprendi was not discussed by the Sixth Circuit.
There have been some very important developments since the Sixth Circuit's decision in Bistline I. In its Report to Congress: Federal Child Pornography Offenses (Dec. 2012), www.ussc.gov/Legislative_ and_ Public_ Affairs/ Congressional_ Testimony_ and_ Reports/ Sex_ Offense_ Topics/ 201212_ Federal_ Child_ Pornography_ Offenses/ (visited October 1, 2013), the Sentencing Commission publicly declared that the existing guidelines for child pornography offenses were flawed and in need of repair. In a letter to Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission, dated March 5, 2013, Anne Gannon, National Coordinator for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, responded to the Commission’s report on behalf of the Department of Justice. See Letter from Anne Gannon, Nat’l Coordinator for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, Office of the Deputy Attorney General, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, to Honorable Patti B. Saris, Chair, U.S. Sentencing Comm’n (Mar. 5, 2013), available at http://sentencing.typepad.com/files/doj-letter-to-ussc-on-cpreport. pdf (visited Sept. 30, 2013). The Department expressed its agreement with many of the Commission’s conclusions, noting that the report “reflects a significant amount of detailed research and thoughtful analysis" and thanking the Commission for "undertaking the important task of laying the foundation for reforming sentencing practices involving non-production child pornography offenses." Id. at 1.
Nevertheless, on June 27, 2013, four months after the Commission’s report, the Sixth Circuit filed its opinion in United States v. Bistline, 720 F.3d 631 (6th Cir. 2013)(“Bistline II”) reaffirming it's holding in Bistline I, with no mention whatsoever of the Commission’s findings or the extent of the Department of Justice's concurrence. As a judge who has regularly sat on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals by designation for more than two decades, I find this inexplicable. Many of the Commission’s criticisms of the child pornography guidelines, including criticisms which the Justice Department concurred in, are identical to the ones I expressed in my sentencing colloquy in Mr. Bistline’s case. The Sentencing Commission’s criticism of the crack cocaine guidelines was cited as a reason for diminished deference for those guidelines in Kimbrough, and that part of the Kimbrough decision was cited by the Sixth Circuit in Bistline I to explain why the Supreme Court decided that the crack cocaine guidelines were entitled to less deference. See Bistline I, 665 F.3d at 763. In light of the fact that, in the interim, the Commission had spoken on the child pornography guidelines, why would the court not revisit the applicability of Kimbrough when it decided Bistline II? It seems clear to me that under Kimbrough, the child pornography guidelines should be accorded less, not more, deference than others.
It is a tragic irony that sentencing judges in the Sixth Circuit are required to give enhanced deference to guidelines which the independent Commission, relied upon so heavily by the Supreme Court in upholding the Guidelines, has now declared flawed and in need of reform. It is even more tragic that offenders in this circuit will have to rely on prosecutorial discretion, not judicial discretion, in order to receive a just and fair sentence in these cases.
October 9, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Kimbrough reasonableness case, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack