Thursday, March 13, 2014

Previewing what AG Holder will say about drug sentencing to US Sentencing Commission

As noted in this prior post, Attorney General Eric Holder is, according to this official agenda, the first scheduled witness at the US Sentencing Commission's important public hearing today on proposed amendments to reduce drug sentencing terms in the federal sentencing guidelines. The full text of what AG Holder says will likely be available on line later today, but this new Washington Post article, headlined "Holder will call for reduced sentences for low-level drug offenders," provides a preview of what he plans to say (which my emphasis below on an especially notable development) and some context for his latest sentencing reform advocacy:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Thursday will urge reduced sentences for defendants in most of the nation’s drug cases, part of his effort to cut the burgeoning U.S. prison population and reserve stiff penalties for the most violent traffickers.

Holder’s proposal, which is expected to be approved by the independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal judges, would affect 70 percent of drug offenders in the criminal justice system, according to figures provided by Justice Department officials. It would reduce sentences by an average of nearly a year.

“Certain types of cases result in too many Americans going to prison for far too long, and at times for no truly good public safety reason,” Holder plans to tell the U.S. Sentencing Commission, according to excerpts of his testimony provided to The Washington Post. “Although the United States comprises just five percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.”

Like Holder’s previous criminal justice reforms, the move is likely to be hailed by civil liberties groups and assailed by some lawmakers who think the administration is chipping away at federal policies designed to deter criminals and improve public safety.

The seven-member sentencing panel has proposed an amendment to federal sentencing guidelines and will vote on it as soon as April. Until then, federal judges must refer to current sentencing guidelines. Holder, however, will instruct his prosecutors in a memo Thursday not to press judges to impose the longer sentences in the current guidelines if attorneys for drug offenders seek shorter sentences for their clients that would be permissible under the new policy.

Under current mandatory minimum guidelines, a drug offender convicted of possessing 500 grams of cocaine or 28 grams of crack would face a term of 63 to 78 months. Holder is proposing that the time in such a case be reduced to 51 to 63 months. “By reserving the most severe penalties for dangerous and violent drug traffickers, we can better protect public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation while saving billions of dollars and strengthening communities,” Holder plans to say. The lower sentencing ranges would result in a 17 percent decrease in the average length of time imposed on a drug offender, Justice Department officials said.

Holder’s new sentencing proposal is the latest step in his agenda to revise the criminal justice system. In August, he announced that low-level nonviolent drug offenders with no connection to gangs or large-scale drug organizations would not automatically be charged with offenses that call for severe mandatory sentences. That measure, however, didn’t address the sentencing ranges defendants could face under federal guidelines.

Holder’s latest policy change would reduce the Bureau of Prison population by 6,550 people within five years, according to the Justice Department. Of the more than 216,000 federal inmates, nearly half are serving time for drug-related crimes. At the same time it is seeking to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders, the Justice Department is putting greater focus on violent traffickers who bring heroin and other drugs into the United States....

Holder’s efforts to reduce the prison population have drawn criticism from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and other lawmakers who say the administration is undermining policies that were set up to deter would-be criminals.

But many of Holder’s criminal justice policies have been praised by civil liberties groups and have bipartisan support in Congress. A bill that Holder and the Obama administration support to reform prison sentences includes both Republican and Democratic sponsors, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).

Last week, at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor, Md., Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that prison reform is one issue on which he agrees with Holder. “There aren’t many things that the president and the attorney general and I agree about. Know what I mean?” said Perry, who ran for president in 2012.

As noted in this post, I will be off-line most of today in order to travel to and participate in a Sixth Circuit oral argument. But I should be able to provide additional coverage and review of all the sentencing reform action taking place today at the USSC's public hearing before the end of the day.

Some old and newer related posts about AG Holder and the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

March 13, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sixth Circuit to hear oral argument on extreme application of ACCA in US v. Young

A number of months ago in this post, titled "A few shotgun shells landed a man 15 years in federal prison," I reported on a remarkable federal sentencing story out of Tennessee involving an extreme application of the 15-year mandatory minimum federal sentencing term set out in the Armed Career Criminal Act.  I am now excited that tomorrow morning, a Sixth Circuit panel is scheduled to hear oral argument in this matter, US v. Young.  I am excited in part because I authored a brief on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys (NACDL) setting out why this sentencing should be deemed unconstitutional under a proper application/interpretation of the Eighth Amendment.  And the Sixth Circuit has afforded me five minutes of argument time (taken from the Appellant's alloted time).

Notably, counsel for Mr. Young has on appeal has developed a Fifth Amendment challenge to the conviction as well as making Eighth Amendment arguments against the sentence.  And the feds, not surprisingly, contend there is no constitutional problem with the conviction and sentence in this case.  Readers interested in this case and the legal issues on appeal can review the briefs, which I am uploading here:

Download Brief of Appellant in US v. Young

Download Young Amicus FILED

Download Appellee's Briefin US v. Young

Download Reply Brief of Appellant in Young

Related prior posts:

March 12, 2014 in Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

New Hampshire House votes to repeal state's (dormant) death penalty

As reported in this local piece, the "New Hampshire House has approved a measure to repeal the state's death penalty after rejecting an amendment that would have spared the life of the only convict on death row in the state." Here is more:

The House voted 225-104 in favor of repeal....

The Legislature voted to repeal capital punishment in 2000, but then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed the bill. Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan has said she supports repeal as long as it is not applied retroactively to Addison's case.

The measure next goes to the Republican-controlled Senate, where it faces an uncertain future.

I call New Hampshire's death penalty dormant largely because it has only one person on death row and has not executed anyone in three-quarters of a century.

March 12, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ohio prosecutor, upon learning of mental health issues, helps undo 5-year prison term for voter fraud

This local article from Cincinnati, which is headlined "Poll worker who voted illegally freed from prison," reports on a remarkable development in a remarkable voting fraud case thanks to the work of a new defense attorney and a thoughtful local prosecutor. Here are the details:

The former Hamilton County Board of Elections worker convicted last year of illegal voting and sent to prison for five years was released Tuesday because of mental health issues. Melowese Richardson, 58, was too ashamed to mention her bipolar disorder last year and forbid her attorney, Bill Gallagher, from including it as part of her attempt to elude prison. But after she was convicted last spring of four counts of illegal voting, her new attorney appealed the case and raised the issue.

When he sentenced Richardson last year, Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman made stinging comments about Richardson, her criminal history, her violation of elections board rules and Ohio laws and her selfishness. "I was not aware of her mental health issues" at that time, the judge said Tuesday, because she refused to allow her attorney to mention it.

After her new attorney, David Singleton, took her case on appeal, he presented her mental health history to Prosecutor Joe Deters. He agreed her bipolar disorder was so severe that she shouldn't be imprisoned. "We went to Joe Deters with those records and Joe immediately recognized that it was inappropriate to have her locked up for five years when the (judge) didn't know she had mental health issues," Singleton said....

In the Tuesday hearing that lasted just minutes, Richardson said nothing except to briefly answer questions, saying she was aware of what was happening and approved. The judge dismissed her May 2013 conviction and five-year prison sentence and allowed her to plead no contest to four counts of illegal voting, the same charges on which she was convicted. That allowed the judge to re-sentence her, placing her on five years of probation and releasing her from the Hamilton County Justice Center after eight months in prison.

Richardson's case drew national headlines last year because of the allegations of illegal voting across the country – and because she was a Hamilton County poll worker from 1998 until her arrest. 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 was previously 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.

Persons familiar with Ohio policy and politics know that Hamilton County is a fair conservative part of the state and that Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters is widely know for having put a significant number of murderers on the state's death row. But as this case usefully highlights, state and local prosecutors are often able and often willing to reconsider or resist the use of lengthy prison terms when defense lawyers are able to effectively highlight why such a sentence may be unjust and/or ineffective.

March 11, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Might SCOTUS soon (ever?) consider whether its Apprendi jurisprudence should apply to criminal forfeitures?

The question in the title of this post is my response to the brief discussion of a constitutional claim appearing in yesterday's Ninth Circuit decision in US v. Wilkes, No. 11-50152 (9th Cir. March 10, 2014) (available here).  Here is why:

Wilkes argues that determination of the amount of his criminal forfeiture by the district judge, as opposed to a jury, violated his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. Wilkes argues that Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), and Alleyne v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2151 (2013), require that the jury find facts justifying an increase in either end of the range of the prescribed penalty. Wilkes further argues that Southern Union Co. v. United States, 132 S. Ct. 2344 (2012), applied Apprendi and, by extension, Alleyne, to monetary penalties — which he contends includes criminal forfeiture.

Wilkes’s argument is directly contradicted by binding Supreme Court precedent. In Libretti v. United States, 516 U.S. 29, 48–49 (1995), the Court expressly held that there is no Sixth Amendment right to a jury verdict in a criminal forfeiture proceeding. The Supreme Court has cautioned courts of appeals against concluding that “recent cases have, by implication, overruled an earlier precedent.” Agostini v. Felton, 521 U.S. 203, 237 (1997).  Thus, “[i]f a precedent of [the Supreme] Court has direct application in a case, yet appears to rest on reasons rejected in some other line of decisions, the Court of Appeals should follow the case which directly controls, leaving to [the Supreme] Court the prerogative of overruling its own decisions.” Rodriguez de Quijas v. Shearson/Am. Express, Inc., 490 U.S. 477, 484 (1989). In compliance with the Supreme Court’s instructions, we reject the argument that Southern Union implicitly overruled Libretti.

Notably, and I think sensibly, this Ninth Circuit panel does not try to explain why Libretti is still sound and good law in light of Apprendi, Southern Union and Alleyne. Instead, it says it is not its role/job to reverse a pre-Apprendi ruling based on Apprendi; that is what SCOTUS has to do. But since SCOTUS has reversed at least two significant pre-Apprendi rulings based on Apprendi, defendants might be wise to keep raising and preserving this claim until the Supreme Court gives it another modern review.

March 11, 2014 in Blakely Commentary and News, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, March 07, 2014

Florida Supreme Court hears arguments on Miller retroactivity and application

As effectively reported in this lengty local article, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday heard arguments on whether a teenage murderer given mandatory LWOP over a decade ago can now secure a resentencing because of the US Supreme Court's Miller ruling.  Here are the basics:

Rebecca Lee Falcon, now 32, represents a group of more than 200 Florida prisoners serving life without the possibility of parole for murders committed while they were under the age of 18.

The issue before the state's highest court is whether a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling — which held that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional — should apply since Falcon and the other prisoners' sentences were final before the nation's highest court ruled.

The immediate matter is whether the ruling in Miller vs. Alabama is retroactive.  But it also represents a broader issue at play in the Florida courts and state Legislature as judges and lawmakers struggle with conforming the state's laws with a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have determined juveniles need to be treated differently than adults in the justice system....

Karen Gottlieb, a lawyer representing Falcon, argued that the Miller ruling should be retroactive since it represented a change in Florida law of "fundamental significance," when the federal court held mandatory life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutionally cruel and unusual and should be uncommon.  "Post-conviction relief must be afforded to avoid obvious injustice," Gottlieb said.

Gottlieb noted that unlike adult prisoners who face the death penalty and receive extensive sentencing reviews, where many factors are weighed, the 200 juveniles — with mandatory life sentences after 1994 — received no review.   "We have every child sentenced to life without parole in these cases with no review of any factor about their youth and the attendant circumstances, their lack of judgment and impetuousness, their maturity, the prospect for rehabilitation and reform, the outside influences, peer influences," Gottlieb said. "None of that has been considered."

Trisha Meggs Pate, an appellate lawyer representing the state, argued against retroactivity, saying the federal ruling did not abolish life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder but only rejected mandatory sentencing.  "It is not a substantive change in law that forbids the state from imposing a new sentence," Pate said. "It's not a categorical ban against life without parole sentencing.  She may go back to the trial court and face the exact same punishment."

Pate also raised the issue of the burden on the state courts if the more than 200 prisoners had to return to court for resentencing hearings.  "You're going to have to have witnesses. We're going to have to have facts about the crime scene, how the crime occurred, what happened, medical examiners," Pate said.  "And some of these cases are 20 years old. They have been final for a long time."...

[Certain] justices seemed troubled by the prospect of letting the Miller ruling apply to cases that were under appeal at the time of the ruling and for future cases but not being applied to the 200 older cases.  "So we just turn our backs on the fact that there are 200, even if you say 500, young people who are sitting in jail forever, and we just turn (our) backs on that when the Supreme Court has said clearly that that is not an appropriate sentence if they have not had an opportunity to have their situation looked at individually?" Justice Peggy Quince asked.

The justices seemed to move past the issue of retroactivity and were asking questions of both sides on what procedures Florida should use in sentencing juveniles under the Miller rulings....  The issue has been complicated by the fact that the state abolished parole in 1994, although the system is still used for prisoners who were incarcerated before that time.  And the Florida Legislature has been unable to pass a new law taking into account Miller and other court rulings that impact the sentencing of juveniles. Bills are now pending in the 2014 session on those issues.

As noted in this recent post, the Michigan Supreme Court also heard arguments yesterday on Miller retroactivity issues.  This coincidence sets up an interesting natural experiment concerning which state supreme court has reach a ruling on this importand and challenging issue first.  

Importantly, the Michigan Supreme Court has the benefit of not having to sort completely through how Miller resentencings can and should be done because the Michigan legislature has already enacted a Miller fix statute.  In contrast, the failure to date of Florida's legislature to formally respond to Miller essentially forces the Florida Supreme Court to have to make even more hard decisions about how Miller can and should get implemented.  

March 7, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Senate Judiciary Committee approves Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act

Yesterday the US Senate Judiciary Committee voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill known as the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act.  This press release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, headlined "FAMM Hails Continued Bipartisan Support for Criminal Justice Reforms," provides this information about the bill contents and context:

The bipartisan bill, a compromise negotiated by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and John Cornyn (R-TX), is anticipated to help alleviate overcrowding in federal prisons — now at 138 percent of their capacity — and may help reduce federal prison costs, which consume a full quarter of the Department of Justice’s budget and threaten funding for other law enforcement programs.  Among other things, the legislation passed today:

  • requires the federal Bureau of Prisons to classify all federal prisoners as being at high, moderate, or low risk of reoffending;

  • permits many prisoners to earn time credits for completing recidivism-reducing programs or “productive activities” like maintaining a prison job; and

  • allows low and moderate risk prisoners who earn a certain number of time credits to be released from prison early to serve the remainders of their sentences on prerelease custody in a halfway house, on home confinement, or under community supervision.

This article from Main Justice, headlined "DOJ Spends Too Much on Prisons, Leahy Says," reports than 15 Senators voted in support of this bill and that the only GOP member to vote against the bill was Senator Jeff Sessions.

For a variety of reasons, I expect bills to reform severe sentencing laws like the Justice Safety Valve Act and the Smarter Sentencing Act will continue to get a lot more attention than this Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act. But, for a variety of reasons, I think this bill, which may have the broadest support among the most important political players in Congress, could end up being the most important and consequential for helping to transform the nature and future of the federal sentencing system.

March 7, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Michigan enacts Miller fix for current and future cases, just as its Justices are to consider past cases

As reported in this local article, headlined "Gov. Rick Snyder signs 'juvenile lifer' update as old cases head to Michigan Supreme Court," the Great Lakes State is busy this week working through all the fall-out from the U.S. Supreme Court's Miller Eighth Amendment ruling.  Here are some of the details:

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday signed legislation updating state sentencing guidelines in the wake of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed mandatory life terms without the possibility of parole for minors....

Senate Bill 319, sponsored by state Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), changes Michigan law for all pending and future cases involving juvenile defendants convicted of first-degree murder, felony murder or certain repeat sexual assault offenses. Instead of handing down mandatory life sentences in those cases, judges can also consider a term of between 25 and 60 years. Prosecutors may still file a request for a natural life sentence, but judges now have new authority to consider other options....

Michigan is home to some 360 juvenile lifers -- more than all but one other state -- but the new law will not have an immediate impact on most inmates already behind bars.  The U.S. Supreme Court, in banning mandatory life sentences for minors, did not indicate whether the ruling should apply retroactively.  The new law contains a "trigger" for resentencing hearings in case of a future court ruling.

The Michigan Supreme Court is set to consider the "retroactivity" question on Thursday, when justices are scheduled to hear oral arguments in three juvenile lifer cases. Two of the offenders, Raymond Carp and Cortez Davis, have exhausted the traditional appeals process but are seeking resentencing.

The third, Dakotah Eliason, is entitled to resentencing because his case is still on appeal, but his attorneys disputed the limited relief offered by the Michigan Court of Appeals, which told a sentencing judge to consider only two options: life with or without the possibility of parole. Michigan's new law, which also allows for a term of years less than life, makes that particular issue moot.  The Eliason case asks the Michigan Supreme Court to consider other issues as well, however, so it's unclear how oral arguments will proceed.

It may be just coincidence that the Michigan legislature got a Miller fix enacted into law just before the Michigan Supreme Court considers retroactive application of Miller to past cases. But I have to think the Michigan Supreme Court might feel (consciously or unconsciously) at least a bit more comfortable concluding that Miller applies retroactively now that the state has a new sentencing scheme for juve murderers on the books.

Michigan media has been covering the Miller application/litigation story quite effectively in the run up to the state's Supreme Court hearing, and here are the headline links to some of the coverage in the last few weeks:

March 5, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Why the #@$%! are IQ tests, but not burdens of proof, the key issue in Hall?

The question in the title of this post is my basic reaction to what struck me as a very annoying SCOTUS oral argument yesterday in Hall v. Florida concerning how states must deal with the Atkins categroical Eighth Amendment constitutional bar on executing defendants who are mentlly retarded.  The transcript of the argument is available at this link, and Lyle Denniston has this SCOTUSblog summary of what transpired.  Here is the start of Lyle's recap:

If a state, trying to make it simple to decide who can be given a death sentence, opts for a choice that looks arbitrary, it is likely to have a difficult time in a Supreme Court that worries about the chances of error.  That was demonstrated anew on Monday, when Florida found itself in deep Eighth Amendment trouble with a rule that anyone with an IQ above 70 can be executed if convicted of murder.

A quite definite majority of the Justices — perhaps, notably, including Justice Anthony M. Kennedy — left little doubt that Florida and six other states will not be allowed to maintain an automatic test-score-based cutoff for those who could qualify as mentally retarded and thus can escape the death penalty.

Kennedy’s role is central because he has most often led the Court in narrowing the category of those eligible to be executed, to take account of reduced capacity to be held responsible for their criminal behavior.  He was among the most active in questioning Florida’s approach to mental retardation among those on death row.  And, on Monday, he added in some strongly implied criticism of a system that allows some inmates to remain on death row for decades — an issue that is not directly involved in the new case of Hall v. Florida.

Justice Antonin Scalia expended considerable effort to buttress Florida’s basic argument that the scientific community cannot be trusted to make the rules for eligibility for capital punishment, but except for some supportive hints from Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., this seemed to be a largely forlorn endeavor.

Most of the other Justices joined in the pursuit of an Eighth Amendment rule that would assure that the mental retardation inquiry was sophisticated and nuanced, so that the risk of error was taken fully into account.  While such a rule might not definitely hand over the details to the judgment of scientists and doctors, it apparently would not tolerate an approach designed simply to assure that fewer death-row inmates get off with a claim of mental disability.  That appeared to be Florida’s main objective.

This account of the tenor of the Hall oral argument seems right, and yesterday's SCOTUS discussion reinforces the all-too-usual modern death penalty dynamic of Justice Kennedy seemingly being the swing vote so that whatever he may think about hard capital issues becomes Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  But beyond my standard annoyance with modern constitutional death penalty law now being all about what Justice Kennedy thinks, the Hall oral argument has me extra annoyed because the Court seems intent on focusing application of Atkins on the narrow medical issue of how exactly IQ tests can be used when assessing mental disability rather than on the critical legal/constitutional issue of how burdens of proof can be allocated when deciding who is exempt from the death penalty.

I suppose I should not be too surprised, based both on the cert grant and the approach taken by the advocates in Hall, that Florida's IQ line-drawing approach to Atkins took center stage during yesterday's SCOTUS argument.  But as Kent highlights in this effective post at Crime & Consequences, the discussion of statistics and IQ measurement error among the Justices was garbled at best, and really more an example of junk science on display rather than a serious exploration of whether and when an inexact measurement device (an IQ test) can itself establish at the margins placement of a defendant in an inexact medical category (mentally retarded/disabled) which SCOTUS has given legal significance via its Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  

That IQ is, at best, an inexact measurement device is amply proved by the Brief of petitioner Freddie Lee Hall: that brief indicates that IQ measurements for Hall have ranged from 60 to 80 and that various doctors at various times have scored his IQ at 71, 72, 73, 74, 76, and 79.  This reality suggests that IQ tests can only provide a general fuzzy picture of a person's mental abilities and that it would be foolish and misguided for anyone to use IQ scores alone as dispostive "scientific" or "objective" evidence of whether a murderer is or is not mentally retarded/disabled.  In this sense, I suppose, Florida does look bad having a bright-line IQ line for administering Atkins.  But given that IQ tests will always scatter in these kinds of cases, I think the legal issue of who bears the burden of proof and at what level as to Atkins claims is what ultimately determines the reach of Atkins in any state.

If SCOTUS strikes down the current Florida approach to Atkins without speaking to burdens of proof, Florida could then just employ Gerogia's approach to "assure that fewer death-row inmates get off with a claim of mental disability" by requiring defendants to prove they have MR beyond a reasonable doubt (or perhaps even say beyond all doubt).  Already, Florida requires a defendant to prove his disability by clear and convincing evidence, and that standard (with or without an IQ requirement) necessarily entails that Florida will be able to execute murderers whom judges reasonably think, but are not clearly convinced, are mentally retarded/disabled.   The experience in since Atkins makes clear that states eager to limit who gets off death row can do so using legal standards like proof burdens rather than relying just on IQ numbers.  Thus if (and when?) SCOTUS only addresses how IQ tests are used in Hall and dodges any discussion of burdens of proof, Atkins application issues (and interstate Atkins disparity) will persist.

I suppose I am frustrated here in large part because SCOTUS has long been eager to avoid, in all sorts of settings, establishing any clear and predicatble constitutional rules for burdens of proof concerning facts or factors that impact only sentencing determinations and not guilt.  These burden-of-proof issues, which may be viewed as a Fifth Amendment due process concern and/or an Eighth Amendment concern depending on the setting, can be found lurking in the Apprendi-Blakely Sixth Amendment line of cases, but they have never gotten the independent treatment that I think they merit and needs  I have long been hoping Hall might finally lead to some useful burden-of-proof constitutional jurisprudence, but after the oral argument I am no longer hopeful on this front.

March 4, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Monday, March 03, 2014

"Holder and Republicans Unite to Soften Sentencing Laws"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new New York Times article, which includes these excerpts:

Shortly after Senator Rand Paul filed suit last month against the Obama administration to stop its electronic dragnet of American phone records, he sat down for lunch with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in his private dining room at the Justice Department.

Mr. Paul, a Kentucky Republican, is one of the Obama administration’s most vocal critics. But their discussion focused on an issue on which they have found common cause: eliminating mandatory-minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

The Democratic attorney general and the possible Republican presidential candidate are unlikely allies. But their partnership is crucial to an alliance between the nation’s first African-American attorney general, who sees his legacy in a renewed focus on civil rights, and some of Congress’s most prominent libertarians, who have accused the Obama administration of trampling on personal freedom with drones, wiretaps, tracking devices and too much government.

Together, they could help bring about the most significant liberalization of sentencing laws since President Richard M. Nixon declared war on drugs. In 2010, Congress unanimously voted to abolish the 100-to-1 disparity between sentences for crack cocaine offenses and those for powdered cocaine, a vestige of the crack epidemic. Now, the Obama administration and its allies in Congress are pushing to go even further. Mr. Holder wants to make prisoners eligible for early release if they were sentenced under the now-abolished crack guidelines. And he wants judges to have more discretion when it comes to sentencing nonviolent drug offenders....

Libertarian-minded Republicans see long prison sentences as an ineffective and expensive way to address crime. “This is the definition of how you get bipartisan agreement,” Mr. Paul said in an interview. “It’s not splitting the difference. It’s finding areas of common interest.”

Mr. Paul is backing a sentencing overhaul bill, also supported by Mr. Holder and the Obama administration, that he predicts will pass the Senate with support from up to half of its Republicans. The bill’s sponsors include Democratic stalwarts such as Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee chairman, as well as Republicans with strong Tea Party credentials like Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas

Similar legislation is pending in the House, where libertarians and Tea Party conservatives will be crucial to determining its fate if it comes up for a vote. That is the same group that bucked the Obama administration and nearly succeeded in passing legislation prohibiting the National Security Agency from seizing the phone records of millions of Americans.

Some Republicans say that they are the ones being consistent on matters of protecting liberties, and that Mr. Holder’s push for changes to the sentencing laws is a step in their direction, not the other way around. “I would say Eric Holder supports me and my civil liberties bill,” said one of the House bill’s sponsors, Representative Raúl R. Labrador, an Idaho Republican who once demanded Mr. Holder’s resignation over the botched gun-trafficking case called Operation Fast and Furious....

Mr. Holder noted that a third of the Justice Department’s budget is spent running prisons. That resonates with fiscal conservatives like Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah. Mr. Chaffetz once suggested that Republicans might have Mr. Holder arrested for contempt. But Mr. Holder recently had him for breakfast at the Justice Department....

Mr. Chaffetz said his conversations with Mr. Holder represented “one of the few instances I can point to where we’re starting to make some kid steps forward” toward bipartisan collaboration.... “I think there’s a realization that we’re not actually solving the problem with some of these drug crimes,” Mr. Chaffetz added. “But on the other side of the coin, there’s no trust with the Obama administration. None.”...

Representative Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican and a former federal prosecutor, joined Mr. Chaffetz for breakfast at the Justice Department and described Mr. Holder as a gracious host. “The fact that he’s taking the time to talk to two backbenchers, he certainly didn’t have to do that,” Mr. Gowdy said.

Mr. Gowdy said he was convinced that mandatory sentences made little sense for minor offenses. But he doubts that a sentencing bill can pass the House, in part because voters in Republican districts oppose so many of the Obama administration’s policies. Mr. Holder’s push for same-sex marriage does not make it easier, he said.

Mr. Paul was more optimistic. He said conservatives and liberals would join in support of changing sentencing laws, just as they have joined in opposition of the N.S.A.'s domestic surveillance programs.... As the meeting concluded, they agreed to work together and said their goodbyes. Then Mr. Paul wryly added, “I’ll see you in court.”

Some old and newer related posts about AG Holder and the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

March 3, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack

SCOTUS finally to grapple with how states are applying Atkins

I helped represent a Texas death-row defendant with a very low IQ in habeas appeals years before the 2002 SCOTUS ruling in Atkins v. Virginia decided the Eighth Amendment precludes execution of murderers who are mental retarded.  As a result of that work two decades ago, I have long been interested in the question the Supreme Court will this morning finally confront at oral argument in Hall v. Florida: how can (or must) states define and apply mental retardation for purposes of determining who is excluded from execution due to Atkins.

For a variety of reasons, Hall could end up being a huge case about constitutionally required sentencing procedures that could impact lots of cases outside the context of the death penalty.  I suspect, however, that some Justices will be eager to ensure the Court's work in Hall ends up modest and limited.  For this reason, I think today's oral argument may provide an interesting window into how certain Justices are approaching Hall and this broader issues of procedure and federalism that it raises.

I expect to post on the substance of the Hall oral argument later this week.  But for more pre-game analysis, here are a few media reports and commentaries on Hall:

March 3, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Has anyone formally calculated exactly how very few federal sentences are found unreasonable?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by two noteworthy (or perhaps not really noteworthy) circuit opinions from last week in which two way-above-guideline sentences were affirmed as reasonable by the panels of the First and Seventh Circuits in US v. Santiago-Rivera, No. 13-1228 (1st Cir. Feb. 28, 2014) (available here); US v. Castaldi, No. 10-3406 (7th Cir. Feb. 24, 2014) (available here).  In both cases, a defendant appealed as unreasonable the imposition of a prison sentence roughly a decade longer than the (already lengthy) prison term suggested by the applicable guidelines.  In both cases, the panel found the way-above-guideline sentence procedurally and substantively reasonable (though one Seventh Circuit judge dissented in Castaldi).

At one level, these two rulings highlight how increased district court discretion to sentence outside the guidelines will often be used enhance sentences involving serious and harmful crimes.  (Castaldi involved a big Ponzi scheme impacting many persons, Santiago-Rivera involved a police officer shooting.)  In addition, both rulings show that circuits may be especially inclined to find way-above-guideline sentences reasonable, even more so than way-below-guideline sentences.  (I cannot readily think of one, let alone two, sentences set a full decade below the calculated guideline sentence upheld after an appeal by the government.)  But, as the title of this post suggests, perhaps the broader story is how very few federal sentences are even found unreasonable.

Booker has been the federal sentencing law of the land since 2005, but the true era of modern reasonableness review likely should be defined as starting in December 2007 after the Supreme Court handed down the last of the troika of reasonableness review cases via Gall, Kimbrough and Rita.  Since those opinions were issued, we have probably had over 500,000 federal sentences imposed, and I suspect that less than 250 have been found procedurally unreasonable on appeal and less than 50 have been found substantively unreasonable.  (This federal defender document titled Appellate Decisions After Gall (and updated through early December 2013) provides the most complete accounting of reasonableness rulings that I have seen.)

In other words, based on this very rough assessment of reasonableness review outcomes compared to sentences imposed, it would seem that in only about one of every 2,000 federal sentencings does something go procedurally wrong and in only one of every 10,000 federal sentencings involves some substantive unreasonableness.  (Of course, the vast majority of federal sentences are not appealed, in part due to the wide use of appeal waivers in plea agreements, so the outcomes of appeals is not the ideal measuring stick here.  Still, I think these numbers are telling.)

For a lot of reasons, the prospect of reasonableness review may do a lot more work and have a lot more influence than the so-very-rare reversal of a sentence as unreasonable would suggest.  Still, I have largely given up my prior habit of regularly report notable federal circuit rulings concerning reasonableness appeals in part because affirmances in cases like Castaldi and Santiago-Rivera are, statistically speaking, not really notable.

UPDATE: I just noticed that a Fourth Circuit panel also issued an opinion on the same day as the First Circuit opinion linked above that affirms as reasonable a sentence set about 8 years above the guideline range in US v. Washington, No. 13-4132 (4th Cir. Feb. 28, 2014) (available here).

March 2, 2014 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Thanks to Gov. Brown, Plata, budget woes, state court rulings and/or _____, California lifers now have a real chance for parole

MadlibsThe weird "Mad-Libs" title to this post is my reaction and query in response to this notable new AP report headlined "California 'lifers' leaving prison at record pace."  Here are the details:

Nearly 1,400 lifers in California's prisons have been released over the past three years in a sharp turnaround in a state where murderers and others sentenced to life with the possibility of parole almost never got out. Gov. Jerry Brown has granted parole to a record number of inmates with life sentences since he took office in January 2011, going along with parole board decisions about 82 percent of the time.

Brown's predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, authorized the release of 557 lifers during his six-year term, sustaining the board at a 27 percent clip. Before that, Gov. Gray Davis over three years approved the release of two.

This dramatic shift in releases under Brown comes as the state grapples with court orders to ease a decades-long prison crowding crisis that has seen triple bunking, prison gyms turned into dormitories and inmates shipped out of state.

Crime victims and their advocates have said the releases are an injustice to the victims and that the parolees could pose a danger to the public. More than 80 percent of lifers are in prison for murder, while the remaining are mostly rapists and kidnappers.  "This is playing Russian roulette with public safety," said Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance.  "This is a change of philosophy that can be dangerous."

The governor's office said the overcrowding crisis plays no role in the parole decisions. Rather, the governor's office said, each case is addressed individually and Brown is bound by court orders that require state officials to ease the stringent parole requirements that have dramatically increased the time murderers spend in prison.

Today, an inmate convicted of first-degree murders can expect to serve an average of 27 years -- almost twice what it was two decades ago before California became the fourth state to give governors the politically fraught final decision on lifer paroles.  Since then, the number of lifers has grown from 9,000 to 35,000 inmates, representing a quarter of the state prison population.

But two seminal California Supreme Court rulings in 2008 have significantly eased tough parole restrictions.  The court ordered prison officials to consider more than the severity of the applicant's underlying crimes.  It ruled that inmates' records while incarcerated plus their volunteer work should count heavily in assessing early release.

State figures show that since the rulings, the board has granted parole to nearly 3,000 lifers, including 590 last year and a record 670 in 2012.  In the three decades prior to the 2008 rulings, only about 1,800 such prisoners were granted parole.

Davis allowed only two inmates released out of 232 board decisions granting parole between 1999 and 2002. Schwarzenegger sustained the board at a 27 percent clip during his seven years in office when he was presented with 2,050 paroles granted by the board. Brown has allowed 82 percent of the 1,590 paroles granted by the board.

Brown's office says he is operating under a different legal landscape than previous governors, and that he is following court rulings and a 23-year-old state law that gave governors the power to block paroles of lifers who the state board found suitable for release....

Gov. Pete Wilson, the first governor vested with veto power, used it sparingly, though the parole board was approving just a few dozen paroles a year compared with the hundreds the board has been approving in recent years.  Between 1991 and when he left office in January 1999, he approved 115 of the 171, or 67 percent, of the lifers the board found suitable for release....

The few studies of recidivism among released lifers including a Stanford University report show they re-offend at much lower rates than other inmates released on parole and none has been convicted of a new murder.  Of the 860 murderers paroled between 1990 and 2010 that Stanford tracked, only five inmates committed new crimes and none were convicted of murder. The average released lifer is in his mid-50s.  Experts say older ex-cons are less prone to commit new crimes than younger ones.

Brown has reversed the parole board.  On Friday, his office announced it blocked the parole of 100 inmates deemed fit by the board for release and sent two others back to the board for reconsideration.  One of those inmates found fit for release by the board but blocked by Brown was James Mackey, a former University of Pacific football player found guilty of shooting his victim with a crossbow and then strangling him. Brown said Mackey hasn't sufficiently owned up to the crime.  "Until he can give a better explanation for his actions," Brown wrote, "I do not think he is ready to be released."

Ernest Morgan on the other hand, is a lifer Brown did let free. Morgan, a San Francisco man convicted of the shotgun slaying of his 14-year-old stepsister burglarizing the family home, was turned down for parole five times before the board granted him parole, only to be overruled by Schwarzenegger.... "So I was devastated when Schwarzenegger denied my release," said Morgan, who now is majoring in business management at San Francisco State. "I felt I was a political pawn who would never get out."

In 2011, Brown approved his release after 24 years in prison. Brown made no comment in granting Morgan his release. Instead, the governor signaled his approval by taking no action within 30 days of the parole board's decision becoming official. "It's been a remarkable and unexpected change," said Johanna Hoffman, Morgan's lawyer who has represented hundreds of lifers vying for parole since becoming a California lawyer in 2008. "The overcrowding issue has a huge amount to do with it."

February 25, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Curious racial politics omission in otherwise astute analysis of Prez Obama's criminal justice reform record

New York Times big-wig Bill Keller has this interesting final column headlined "Crime and Punishment and Obama," which discusses his transition to a notable new job in the context of a review of Prez Obama's criminal justice record.  Here are excerpts of a piece which should be read in full and which, as my post title suggests, does not discuss racial politics as much as I would expect: 

[W]hen the former community organizer took office, advocates of reform had high expectations.

In March I will give up the glorious platform of The Times to help launch something new: a nonprofit journalistic venture called The Marshall Project (after Thurgood Marshall, the great courtroom champion of civil rights) and devoted to the vast and urgent subject of our broken criminal justice system.  It seems fitting that my parting column should address the question of how this president has lived up to those high expectations so far....

In his first term Obama did not make this a signature issue; he rarely mentioned the subject....

In practice, the administration’s record has been more incremental than its rhetoric.

By the crudest metric, the population of our prisons, the Obama administration has been unimpressive.  The famously shocking numbers of Americans behind bars (the U.S., with 5 percent of the world’s people, incarcerates nearly a quarter of all prisoners on earth) have declined three years in a row.  However the overall downsizing is largely thanks to California and a handful of other states.  In overstuffed federal prisons, the population continues to grow, fed in no small part by Obama’s crackdown on immigration violators.

Obama is, we know, a cautious man, leery of getting ahead of public opinion and therefore sometimes far behind it.  And some reform advocates argue that it made sense for Obama to keep a low profile until a broad bipartisan consensus had gathered.  That time has come. Now that Obama-scorners like Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee and even Ted Cruz are slicing off pieces of justice reform for their issue portfolios, now that red states like Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Missouri and Kentucky have embraced alternatives to prison, criminal justice is one of those rare areas where there is common ground to be explored and tested.

The Obama presidency has almost three years to go, and there is reason to hope that he will feel less constrained, that the eight commutations were not just a pittance but, as he put it, “a first step,” that Holder’s mounting enthusiasm for saner sentencing is not just talk, but prelude, that the president will use his great pulpit to prick our conscience.

“This is something that matters to the president,” Holder assured me last week.  “This is, I think, going to be seen as a defining legacy for this administration.”  I’ll be watching, and hoping that Holder’s prediction is more than wishful thinking

This column covers a lot of modern criminal justice ground quite well, and gets me even more excited for Keller's forthcoming new journalistic venture called The Marshall Project. But I find curious and notable that this commentary does not directly address the racialized political dynamics that necessarily surrounds the first African-American Prez and AG if and whenever they prioritize criminal justice reform.

I have heard that Thurgood Marshall, when doing advocacy work with the NAACP before he became a judge, was disinclined to focus on criminal justice reform because he realized the politics of race made it hard enough for him to garner support for even law-abiding people of color. Consequently, while important federal elections in which Prez Obama is the key player still loom, I suspect the Prez and his team have made a very calculated decision to only move very slowly (and behind folks like Senator Rand Paul) on these matters.

And yet, just as Thurgood Marshall could and did make criminal justice reform a priority when he became a judge and Justice insulated from political pressure, so too am I expecting that Prez Obama will prioritize criminal justice issues once he in the last two lame-duck years of his time in the Oval Office. Two years is ample time for the Prez to make federal criminal justice reform a "defining legacy for this administration," and there is good reason to think political and social conditions for bold reform work will be in place come 2015 and 2016 (even with the inevitably racialized realities surrounding these issues).

February 25, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

"The Banality of Wrongful Executions"

The title of this post is the title of this new piece authored by Brandon Garrett reviewing a number of recent new criminal justice books. Available via SSRN, here is the abstract:

What is so haunting about the known wrongful convictions is that they are the tip of the iceberg. Untold numbers of mundane errors may escape notice while sending the innocent to prison and even to the death chamber. That is why I recommended to readers a trilogy of fascinating new books that look into the larger but murkier problem of error. In this article for Michigan Law Review's annual book issue, I review three books: Los Tocayos Carlos, by James Liebman, Shawn Crowley, Andrew Markquart, Lauren Rosenberg, Lauren Gallo White and Daniel Zharkovsky; Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong, by Raymond Bonner; and In Doubt: The Psychology of the Criminal Justice Process, by Dan Simon. Each of these books brings important new perspective and understanding to the reasons why our criminal justice system can make terrible mistakes.

February 25, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

Monday, February 24, 2014

Via summary reversal, SCOTUS decides Alabama courts wrongfully rejected Sixth Amendment claim of death row defendant

Though not yet garnering much attention, I think SCOTUS-watchers and especially capital punishment followers should take not of a summary reversal by the Supreme Court this morning in Hinton v. Alabama, No. 13-644 (S. Ct. Feb 24, 2014) (available here). Here is how the opinion starts and a key section from the meat of the ruling:

In Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668 (1984), we held that a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel is violated if his trial attorney’s performance falls below an objective standard of reasonableness and if there is a reasonable probability that the result of the trial would have been different absent the deficient act or omission.  Id., at 687–688, 694.  Anthony Ray Hinton, an inmate on Alabama’s death row, asks us to decide whether the Alabama courts correctly applied Strickland to his case. We conclude that they did not and hold that Hinton’s trial attorney rendered constitutionally deficient performance.  We vacate the lower court’s judgment and remand the case for reconsideration of whether the attorney’s deficient performance was prejudicial....

“In any case presenting an ineffectiveness claim, the performance inquiry must be whether counsel’s assistance was reasonable considering all the circumstances.” Strickland, supra, at 688.  Under that standard, it was unreasonable for Hinton’s lawyer to fail to seek additional funds to hire an expert where that failure was based not on any strategic choice but on a mistaken belief that available funding was capped at $1,000....

The trial attorney’s failure to request additional funding in order to replace an expert he knew to be inadequate because he mistakenly believed that he had received all he could get under Alabama law constituted deficient performance..... Hinton’s attorney knew that he needed more funding to present an effective defense, yet he failed to make even the cursory investigation of the state statute providing for defense funding for indigent defendants that would have revealed to him that he could receive reimbursement not just for $1,000 but for “any expenses reasonably incurred.”  An attorney’s ignorance of a point of law that is fundamental to his case combined with his failure to perform basic research on that point is a quintessential example of unreasonable performance under Strickland....

We wish to be clear that the inadequate assistance of counsel we find in this case does not consist of the hiring of an expert who, though qualified, was not qualified enough. The selection of an expert witness is a paradigmatic example of the type of “strategic choic[e]” that, when made “after thorough investigation of [the] law and facts,” is “virtually unchallengeable.” Strickland, 466 U. S., at 690.  We do not today launch federal courts into examination of the relative qualifications of experts hired and experts that might have been hired.  The only inadequate assistance of counsel here was the inexcusable mistake of law — the unreasonable failure to understand the resources that state law made available to him — that caused counsel to employ an expert that he himself deemed inadequate.

Though I am disinclined to make too big a deal out of this (little?) summary reversal, I am quite intrigued by the Court's ready conclusion (without any dissent) that inadequate research into what state law provided as available defense resources in this case made out deficient performance here. And though the Court says it does not want to now see "federal courts [launching] into examination of the relative qualifications of experts hired and experts that might have been hired," I suspect every capital habeas attorney worth his salt will be now eager to stress Hinton v. Alabama while encouraging just such an examination as part of any Sixth Amendment ineffective assistance claim.

February 24, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (42) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 23, 2014

"Shadow Sentencing: The Imposition of Supervised Release"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new paper by Christine S. Scott-Hayward concerning a too-rarely examined component of the federal criminal justice system. Now available via SSRN, here is the abstract:

More than 95 percent of people sentenced to a term of imprisonment in the federal system are also sentenced to a term of supervised release.  Since it was first established in the late 1980s, nearly one million people have been sentenced to federal supervised release. The human and fiscal costs of this widespread imposition are significant.  Supervised release substantially restricts an individual’s liberty and people on supervised release receive diminished legal and constitutional protections.  The fiscal costs of supervised release are also high, particularly when almost one third of people on supervised release will have their supervision revoked and will return to prison.

Despite the importance of supervised release, little is known about how and why sentencing judges impose supervised release and what purpose it is supposed to serve in the federal criminal justice system.  In most cases, supervised release is not mandatory and yet judges consistently fail to exercise their discretion in this area and impose supervised release in virtually all cases.

Based on an empirical study of sentencing decisions in the Eastern District of New York, this article uncovers previously unidentified features of supervised release.  It finds that judges widely impose supervised release without any apparent consideration of the purpose served by the sentence.  This article argues that supervised release is over-used and proposes a new framework for its imposition to ensure that courts only impose supervised release on people who need it.

February 23, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Friday, February 21, 2014

SCOTUS permits additional briefing on CP restitution issues in light of Burrage

The Supreme Court issued a notable two-sentence order today in Paroline v. US, the pending case on child porn restitution sentences.  Here is the text of the order:

The motion of respondent Amy Unknown for leave to file a supplemental brief after argument is granted.  The other parties may file supplemental briefs, not to exceed 3,000 words each, addressing the effect of our decision in Burrage v. United States, 571 U. S. ___ (2014), on this case, on or before Friday, March 7, 2014.

Lyle Denniston over SCOTUSblog has an extended discussion of this intriguing new development, which includes these passages:

The Court, it appears, did not stir up this new issue on its own.  The day after the Burrage decision had been issued, counsel for Doyle Randall Paroline sent a letter to the Court suggesting that this ruling should apply to his client’s case.  The new “Amy Unknown” brief came in response to that, and argued that there were fundamental differences involved.

Two different laws are at issue in the two cases, but the Court’s new action seemed to suggest that there may be some overlap in how to interpret them....

In a letter to the Court Clerk on January 29, Houston attorney Stanley G. Schneider noted the new Burrage ruling, and said he believed it “should apply to the arguments made on behalf of Mr. Paroline.”  The letter offered to submit a brief on the point.

In the supplemental brief, filed on February 11, lawyers for “Amy Unknown” disputed that suggestion, saying that the Court was obliged to interpret a criminal law like the heroin sentence enhancement law in a strict way, but that there is a long tradition of interpreting remedies for torts (legal wrongs) more expansively.  In particular, the new brief said, there is strong authority for the concept of assessing the full amount of damages for a tort to those who had contributed to the harms done.

The supplemental filing accepted by the Supreme Court today from lawyers for “Amy Unknown” is available at this link.

A few (of many) prior posts on Paroline and child porn restitution issues:

February 21, 2014 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Feds to appeal probation sentence given to tax-dodging Beanie Babies billionaire

As reported in this new AP article, the "U.S. attorney's office in Chicago said Thursday that it's appealing a sentence that included no prison time for the billionaire creator of Beanie Babies for hiding at least $25 million from U.S. tax authorities in Swiss bank accounts."  Here is more:

At H. Ty Warner's sentencing last month, Judge Charles Kocoras heaped praise on the toymaker for his charitable giving, declaring society was better served by letting him go free and giving him two years' probation instead of sending him to prison. Warner had faced up to five years in prison.

Warner, 69, of Oak Brook, Ill., was one of the highest profile figures snared in a long-running investigation of Americans concealing funds in Swiss bank accounts. Others convicted of squirreling away less money in Switzerland than Warner have done prison time. Warner, who grew up poor, created the animal-shaped Beanie Babies in the mid-'90s, triggering a craze that made Warner spectacularly rich. Forbes recently estimated his net worth at $2.6 billion.

A one-page notice of appeal signed by U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon was filed with the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, and a full brief will be submitted later. Justice officials in Washington still must OK the appeal, but that's usually considered a formality.

At a Jan. 14 sentencing hearing, Kocoras spent most of his 20-minute explanation of the sentence expressing admiration for Warner. He also said the businessman had already paid a price in "public humiliation." In addition to probation, Kocoras ordered Warner to do 500 hours of community service at Chicago high schools. Earlier, Warner agreed to pay $27 million in back taxes and interest, and a civil penalty of more than $53 million....

During sentencing, assistant government attorney Michelle Petersen urged Kocoras to put Warner behind bars for at least a year.  "(Without prison time), tax evasion becomes little more than a bad investment," she told him.  "The perception cannot be that a wealthy felon can just write a check and not face further punishment."

This should be a VERY interesting sentencing appeal to watch in the months ahead, and I am already super stoked to read the coming Seventh Circuit briefs from the parties concerning what will surely be differing views on what federal sentencing law demands in a case of this nature.

Prior related post:

February 13, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Trio of former governors to get behind initiative to reform California's dysfunctional death penalty

As reported in this Los Angeles Times article, "three former California governors are set to announce their endorsement Thursday of a proposed initiative sponsors say would end lengthy death penalty appeals and speed up executions." Here is more:

Former governors George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis will announce at a news conference the launch of an initiative drive for signatures to qualify the proposed constitutional amendment for the November ballot.

The measure, if qualified, would ignite the second statewide debate on the death penalty in two years. A ballot proposal that would have ended capital punishment in California narrowly lost in 2012, with 48% of voters in favor and 52% against.

The new proposal would establish five-year court deadlines for deciding death row appeals, transfer most death penalty cases from the California Supreme Court to lower courts, and allow capital inmates to be spread among the general prison population. It also would require the condemned to work in prison, remove any threat of state sanctions from doctors who advise the state on lethal injection procedures, and exempt the execution protocols from a state administrative law that requires extensive public review.

California now has more than 700 people on death row, and the last inmate was executed in 2006. The state currently has no court-approved method of lethally injecting the condemned, and drugs to do so have been difficult to obtain. The state also has had trouble recruiting lawyers willing to handle capital appeals, which can take decades to be resolved in state and federal courts.

I am hoping this capital reform initiative makes the California ballot given that a majority of Californians have voted to retain the death penalty in the state. I have to believe that California voters do not want to preserve the distinctly dysfunction death penalty system it now has, and this initiative would appear to be the most efficient and effective means to make the state's system more functional.

If this capital reform initiative makes the California ballot, it will also be interesting to see how California's current governor and attorney general will chime in on the issue. My sense is that Gov Brown and AG Harris are generally opposed to an active capital punishment system, and thus they may be disinclined to support the initiative. But it should be hard for them to explain to voters why the support a dysfunction capital punishment system over a functional one.

February 13, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack