Tuesday, January 25, 2022

"Child Pornography and Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article now available via SSRN and authored by Dawinder Sidhu and Kelsey Robinson. Here is its abstract:

Drug offenses lie at the heart of the movement for criminal justice reform, and for good reason.  The defining attributes of prevailing drug policy — severe and disproportionate penalties owning to a retributive, factually flawed, and hurried congressional process — apply to the child pornography context as well.  In this Article, we identify the common issues with drug and child pornography sentencing and outline the doctrinal implications of this shared foundation, especially as to district court discretion to vary under Kimbrough v. United States.

Though drug sentencing is problematic enough, child pornography is arguably worse.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission has disavowed these guidelines and invited judges to vary from them.  Judges have done just that, varying in 63% of all cases, more than any other offense type.  Thus, in this Article, we also suggest how the improvements to this uniquely distressed area of law can inform criminal justice reform more generally, especially as to substantive reasonableness review under Gall v. United States, mandatory minimum sentences, and sunset provisions for penalty levels.

Child pornography is not part of the conversation for criminal justice reform.  We take on child pornography sentencing, and in doing so hope to ensure that the movement for criminal justice reform is both correct and complete.

January 25, 2022 in Booker in district courts, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Gall reasonableness case, Kimbrough reasonableness case, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable new report on juve LWOP reviews "Montgomery v. Louisiana Six Years Later: Progress and Outliers"

This morning I received this email from the folks at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth that highlighting this new report "Montgomery v. Louisiana Six Years Later: Progress and Outliers." The full short report is worth a full read, and the emails provides this brief accounting of the report's coverage:

Six years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, making Miller v. Alabama’s requirement that judges consider the mitigating attributes of youth retroactive and offering new hope to thousands of people who had been sentenced to life without parole as children.  For many, that hope has led to shorter prison sentences, and for hundreds of others, it’s meant freedom.  At the time of the decision, 2,800 individuals in the U.S. were serving life without parole for crimes committed as children.  In the six years since, 835 individuals formerly serving this sentence have been released from prison. 

Today, 25 states and the District of Columbia ban life-without-parole sentences for children, and in six additional states, no one is serving life without parole for a crime committed as a child.  While we celebrate this inspiring progress, we recognize that far too many others have not yet received the relief they rightfully deserve.  Thus, we are pressing forward in the fight for these individuals across all areas of our work, with a particular focus on state legislatures and advocacy in outlier states. You can read more about how far we have come and the challenges we still face in this report authored by Rebecca Turner, the CFSY’s Senior Litigation Counsel.  

The full report gives particular attention to developments in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Louisiana, which "each had more children sentenced to life without parole than any other state in the country" when Montgomery was handed down.  Here is how the report describes subsequent developments in those states and nationwide:

A majority of the 2,800 individuals serving juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) following Miller have been resentenced in court or had their sentences amended via legislation, depending on the jurisdiction in which they were convicted.

Yet despite the 80% reduction in people serving JLWOP, jurisdictions have varied significantly in their implementation of Miller. As a result, relief afforded to individuals serving JLWOP is based more on jurisdiction than on whether the individual has demonstrated positive growth and maturation.

The uneven implementation of Miller disproportionately impacts Black individuals, who represent 61% of the total JLWOP population....

Within that population [serving JLWOP when Montgomery was decided], 29% have been released, over 50% have had their sentences reduced from JLWOP, about 17% have not yet been afforded relief, and approximately 3% have been resentenced to JLWOP.

January 25, 2022 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 24, 2022

Connecticut Supreme Court reverses sentence based "materially false information" that defendant was in "mythical group of teenage 'superpredators'"

A few helpful folks made sure I did not miss the notable ruling by the Connecticut Supreme Court this past Friday in State v. Belcher, No. SC 20531 (Conn. Jan 21, 2022) (available here). The start of the unanimous opinion sets out the basics:

The defendant, Keith Belcher, a juvenile offender, appeals from the trial court’s denial of his motion to correct an illegal sentence. After his conviction, the defendant received a total effective sentence of sixty years of incarceration.  He claims, inter alia, that the trial court improperly denied his motion to correct on the basis of the court’s conclusion that the sentencing court did not impose the sentence in an illegal manner by relying on materially false information.

Our review of the record reveals that the defendant established that the sentencing court substantially relied on materially false information in imposing his sentence, specifically, on the court’s view that the defendant was a ‘‘charter member’’ of a mythical group of teenage ‘‘superpredators.’’  Therefore, we conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to correct.  Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court, and the case is remanded with direction to grant the defendant’s motion and for resentencing.

The full opinion merits a full read for many reasons.  Therein, one learns that the defendant here was only 14 when committing his crimes way back in 1993 (meaning he has now already served nearly three decades).  Also of note, the court avoids resolution of constitutional claims by deciding he gets resentencing based on the illegal manner of the original sentence's imposition. Here are a few highlights from the interesting opinion:

We conclude that the superpredator theory was baseless when it originally was espoused and has since been thoroughly debunked and universally rejected as a myth, and it therefore constituted false and unreliable information that a sentencing court ought not consider in crafting a sentence for a juvenile offender....

In the context of the sentencing of the defendant, a Black teenager, the court’s reliance on the materially false superpredator myth is especially detrimental to the integrity of the sentencing procedure for two reasons.  First, reliance on that myth invoked racial stereotypes, thus calling into question whether the defendant would have received as lengthy a sentence were he not Black.  Second, the use of the superpredator myth supported treating the characteristics of youth as an aggravating, rather than a mitigating, factor....

In summary, by invoking the superpredator theory to sentence the young, Black male defendant in the present case, the sentencing court, perhaps even without realizing it, relied on materially false, racial stereotypes that perpetuate systemic inequities — demanding harsher sentences — that date back to the founding of our nation.  In addition, contrary to Roper and its progeny, in relying on the superpredator myth, the sentencing court counted the characteristics of youth as an aggravating factor against the defendant.  Although we do not mean to suggest that the sentencing judge intended to perpetuate a race based stereotype, we cannot overlook the fact that the superpredator myth is precisely the type of materially false information that courts should not rely on in making sentencing decisions.  Whether used wittingly or unwittingly, reliance on such a baseless, illegitimate theory calls into question the legitimacy of the sentencing procedure and the sentence.

January 24, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

CCRC releases "From Reentry to Reintegration: Criminal Record Reforms in 2021"

2022_CCRC_Annual-Report_Cover-768x994As detailed at this post over at the website of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, "each year since 2017, CCRC has issued a report on legislation enacted in the past year that is aimed at reducing the barriers faced by people with a criminal record in the workplace, at the ballot box, and in many other areas of daily life."  True to form, CCRC has now released this 55-page report titled  "From Reentry to Reintegration: Criminal Record Reforms in 2021."  The CCRC post about the report provide this helpful review of the full document (emphasis and links from the original):

The title of this post introduces our annual report on new laws enacted during the past year, and emphasizes the continuum from reentry (for those who go to jail or prison) to the full restoration of rights and status represented by reintegrationRecent research indicates that most people with a conviction never have a second one, and that the likelihood of another conviction declines rapidly as more time passes. The goal of full reintegration is thus both an economic and moral imperative.

In the past year the bipartisan commitment to a reintegration agenda has seemed more than ever grounded in economic imperatives, as pandemic dislocations have brought home the need to support, train, and recruit workers who are essential to rebuilding the businesses that are the lifeblood of the economy.  If there is any one thing that will end unwarranted discrimination against people with a criminal history, it is a recognition that it does not pay.

Our 2021 report highlights key developments in reintegration reforms from the past year. It documents that 40 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government enacted 152 legislative bills and took a number of additional executive actions to restore rights and opportunities to people with an arrest or conviction history. As in past years, a majority of these new laws involved individual record clearing: All told, an astonishing 36 states enacted 93 separate laws that revise, supplement or limit public access to individual criminal records to reduce or eliminate barriers to opportunity. Most of these laws established or expanded laws authorizing expungement, sealing, or set-aside of convictions or arrest records.  Several states enacted judicial record clearing laws for the very first time, and a number of states authorized “clean slate” automatic clearing.  Executive pardoning was revived in several states where it had been dormant for years.

In addition, many of the new laws enacted general provisions limiting considering of criminal record in economic settings: 17 states enacted 26 new laws regulating employment and occupational licensing, and more than a dozen other states enacted laws facilitating access to housing, education, driver’s licenses, and public benefits.

Finally, civil rights restoration continued to make progress: Four states took steps to restore voting rights upon release from prison, bringing the total in that category to 21 (with another two states and D.C. not disenfranchising at all). Three other states and the federal government took steps to expand awareness of voting eligibility by those in jail or prison or after release, and four states acted to restore eligibility for jury service and public office....

From Reentry to Reintegration, Criminal Record Reforms in 2021 is available here.  It includes our third annual legislative Report Card recognizing the most (and least) productive legislatures in 2021.  The body of the report provides topical discussions of last year’s reform measures, followed by an appendix documenting and summarizing the new laws by jurisdiction. More detailed analysis of each state’s law is available in the CCRC Restoration of Rights Project.

January 24, 2022 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Brennan Center reviews "Criminal Legal Reform One Year into the Biden Administration"

I received via email news this morning that the Brennan Center for Justice had published this notable new short report titled "Criminal Legal Reform One Year into the Biden Administration." Here is the first part of the email, which serves as an overview of the report's coverage:

During his campaign, President Biden pledged to “strengthen America’s commitment to justice and reform our criminal justice system.” Brennan Center experts conclude that, after his first year in office, some progress has been made — but significant missed opportunities remain.  They identify eight key federal reform measures that the administration could achieve easily, in many cases without needing to rely on Congress, and detail the progress that has been made (if any), ranking them as follows:

Little or no progress

  • Overhauling federal clemency process
  • Empowering the U.S. Sentencing Commission

Limited policy changes

  • The First Step Act and the Bureau of Prisons
  • Federal death penalty
  • Private, for-profit prisons and detention centers

Notable progress

  • Federal home confinement
  • Nominations for U.S. Attorney positions and federal judgeships
  • Commitment to funding community anti-violence programs

January 24, 2022 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Guest post #2 on big Seventh Circuit Wilks decision on Bail Reform Act’s "presumption of detention"

6a00d83451574769e202788010ea87200d-320wiAs explained in this post from last week, Alison Siegler, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the University of Chicago Law School's Federal Criminal Justice Clinic, wrote to me to highlight a big Seventh Circuit ruling on the Bail Reform Act (BRA).  I suggested that she do a guest post series on this Wilks ruling (as she previously did a series of guest posts on her stash-house sting litigation).  Alison  prepared two  posts on the topic; the first is at this link, the second is here:

The Wilks opinion is groundbreaking not only for its clarification of the BRA’s presumption of detention, but also because it is the first opinion from the Seventh Circuit to address the standard of review for a revocation decision under 18 U.S.C. § 3148.  The court sets the same standard of review for both an initial detention decision under 18 U.S.C. § 3142 and a revocation decision under § 3148: “‘independent review’ of the decision below, though with deference to the judge’s findings of historical fact and his greater familiarity with the defendant and the case.” United States v. Wilks, 15 F.4th 842, 847 (7th Cir. 2021); id. (“We conclude that the same standard of review governs an appeal from an initial detention decision and a decision to revoke pretrial release.” (emphasis in original)).

Moreover, Wilks is also the first Seventh Circuit case to address the legal standard for revocation of pretrial release in 18 U.S.C § 3148 (a different issue from the standard of review).  The court holds, in relevant part: “A finding that the defendant violated a release condition does not alone permit revocation; the judge must make findings under both § 3148(b)(1) and (b)(2) before he may revoke release” and must also “weigh the factors listed in § 3142(g).” Id. at 848.

The court ultimately determines that the judge’s findings were insufficient to satisfy the legal standard: “[T]he judge did not find by clear and convincing evidence that Wilks violated a condition of release. See § 3148(b)(1)(B).” Id.  The court finds fault for two reasons.

First, as a factual matter, the judge did not focus on the correct alleged bond violations and did not give the defense an opportunity to respond to new allegations: “Though it was not improper for the judge to reframe the inquiry, the fact remains that Wilks’s counsel did not have an opportunity to address the specific issue that the judge was concerned about.” Id. For the judge to permissibly order detention, the defense must have an opportunity to meaningfully rebut the court’s justification for detention, especially if the court orders detention on the basis of an argument not raised by the government.

Second, the judge did not make sufficient factual findings or properly apply the legal standard to the facts: “A recitation of the statutory language ‘devoid of any discussion, analysis, or explanation as to why the district court concluded that the criteria for release had not been met’ cannot justify detention even after conviction, when the presumption of innocence has been extinguished.” Id. (emphasis in original) (citation omitted).  In other words, before revoking pretrial release, the judge must provide detailed factual findings that are connected to the relevant legal standard — notably, even if the accused has already been convicted and is pending sentencing.

Finally, Wilks reminds us that “the government’s interest in ensuring the safety of the community and securing the defendant’s appearance in court” must be balanced against “the defendant’s interest in his personal liberty.” Id. at 847. As the Supreme Court has emphasized, “[f]reedom from bodily restraint has always been [ ] the core liberty protected by the Due Process Clause.” Foucha v. Louisiana, 504 U.S. 71, 90 (1992). And in the pretrial detention context, “the individual[ ] [has a] strong interest in liberty.” United States v. Salerno, 481 U.S. 739, 750 (1987).  Too often, the government’s interests are treated as paramount, despite the fact that the BRA and precedent require a meaningful consideration of an accused’s “importan[t] and fundamental” interest in liberty. Id.

Federal practitioners seeking to obtain their clients’ release on bond should file written bond motions incorporating the foregoing arguments and applying § 3142(g) to the facts of their case.  My Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School has written a template motion for pretrial release in presumption cases and other bond motions that are available on fd.org at this link (click on “Bail Handout”) and via NACDL at this link.  If you do not have access to these websites you can obtain the FCJC’s template bond motions by emailing the clinic’s assistant, Kyla Norcross, knorcross @ uchicago.edu. For more tips for getting federal clients released on bond, see Alison Siegler & Erica Zunkel, Rethinking Federal Bail Advocacy to Change the Culture of Detention, THE CHAMPION 46, 50 (July 2020); Erica Zunkel & Alison Siegler, The Federal Judiciary’s Role in Drug Law Reform in an Era of Congressional Dysfunction, 18 OHIO STATE JOURNAL OF CRIMINAL LAW 238 (2020).

January 23, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 22, 2022

SCOTUS takes up reach of McGirt's limit on state prosecution in "Indian country"

The Supreme Court via this order last night granted cert in one case, Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, a criminal case concerning the reach of a notable Court ruling from a few terms ago.  This SCOTUSblog post provides the details and context, and here is an excerpt:

Less than two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in McGirt v. Oklahoma by a vote of 5-4 that a large portion of eastern Oklahoma, which was reserved for the Creek Nation in the 19th century, remains a reservation for purposes of a federal law that gives the federal government sole power to try certain major crimes committed by “any Indian” in “Indian country.” On Friday, the justices — with Justice Amy Coney Barrett having replaced the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was in the McGirt majority — agreed to consider how broadly McGirt applies, but they declined to reconsider the decision itself, which the state describes as having a “more immediate and destabilizing effect on life in an American State” than any of the court’s other recent decisions.

The justices granted review in the case of Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta, who was convicted of neglecting his five-year-old stepdaughter.  Although Castro-Huerta is not a Native American, his stepdaughter is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals vacated his conviction because the crime occurred in Indian country.  The decision rested on the court’s conclusion that McGirt applies not only to major crimes committed by Native Americans but also to crimes committed by others in Indian country.

Oklahoma filed more than 30 separate petitions asking the justices to overrule McGirt.  It told the justices that the effects of the decision have been “calamitous and are worsening by the day.”  Thousands of crime victims are now seeking justice from federal and tribal prosecutors, the state wrote, overwhelming those offices and federal district courts and leaving many crimes “uninvestigated and unprosecuted.”...

In a brief order on Friday afternoon, the justices agreed to take up only the first question presented by the state’s petition, relating to the application of McGirt to bar state prosecutions of non-Native defendants who commit crimes against Native Americans in “Indian country.”  The court set the case for argument in its April 2022 argument session, with a decision to follow by summer.

January 22, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, January 21, 2022

"The First Step Act, The Pandemic, and Compassionate Release: What Are the Next Steps for the Federal Bureau of Prisons?"

The title of this post is the title of this congressional hearing taking place this morning conducted by the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security of the US House Judiciary Committee.  I cannot yet find links to any written testimony, but here are the scheduled witnesses from this Witness List:

Homer Venters, Adjunct Clinical Associate Professor, NYU School of Global Public Health

Alison Guernsey, Clinical Associate Professor of Law, University of Iowa College of Law

Gwen Levi, Baltimore, MD

Melissa Hamilton, Professor of Law and Criminal Justice, University of Surrey, School of Law

Gretta L. Goodwin, Director, Homeland Security and Justice, U.S. Government Accountability Office

Julie Kelly, Senior Contributor, American Greatness

January 21, 2022 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Eleventh Circuit panel decides law enforcement violates First Amendment by placing Halloween warning signs on registered sex offenders' lawns

A couple of days ago, a unanimous Eleventh Circuit panel issued an interesting and notable ruling in McClendon v. Long, No. 21-10092 (11th Cir.  Jan. 19, 2022) (available here).  Here is how the court's opinion gets started:

In October 2018, two deputies from the Butts County Sheriff’s Office placed signs in the front yards of the residences of all 57 registered sex offenders within the County, warning “STOP” and “NO TRICK-OR-TREAT AT THIS ADDRESS.” Before Halloween 2019, three registered sex offenders living in Butts County sued, seeking to enjoin the Sheriff from placing the signs again. The district court denied a permanent injunction and granted summary judgment in favor of the Sheriff.

After review and with the benefit of oral argument, we conclude that the Sheriff’s warning signs are compelled government speech, and their placement violates a homeowner’s First Amendment rights.  Thus, we vacate the district court’s judgment in favor of the Sheriff and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

For many years, I have seen reports about (and have blogged a bit about) all sorts of "special" formal and informal rules applied to registered sex offenders by many localities around Halloween. Some of these rules have been challenged in various courts and a few have been enjoined.  But I cannot recall seeing any other federal circuit opinions on this recurring issue, and I suspect this ruling will be widely cited in future litigation over these kinds of issues.

January 21, 2022 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, January 20, 2022

January 6 riot prosecutions continuing to spotlight realities of federal criminal justice case processing

This morning I saw two interesting, though not especially surprising, reviews of some of federal criminal justice realities being put in the spotlight by the many prosecutions of January 6 rioters.  Here are the headlines, links and an excerpt:

From Zoe Tillman at BuzzFeed News, "Alleged Capitol Rioters Are Getting In Trouble For Guns And Other Violations After Going Home: A common theme popping up in violations among those on pretrial release has come from defendants who are reluctant to give up access to firearms."

[Joshua] Pruitt is one of 11 people charged in connection with the attack on the US Capitol who were ordered into custody after initially being released; eight of those cases involved defendants who violated conditions of their pretrial release.  Prosecutors have a pending request to put another defendant behind bars, and BuzzFeed News identified at least 16 cases where judges tightened restrictions or issued warnings after finding defendants failed to be in full compliance with the letter, or spirit, of their release conditions.

The vast majority of people charged in the Jan. 6 investigation have been allowed to go home while their cases are pending; there are more than 550 defendants with active cases on pretrial release. Most have stayed out of trouble. The small but steady trickle of problems that have cropped up speak to some of the broader challenges judges have faced in deciding when it’s appropriate to send someone back into the community who is accused of being part of the insurrection but isn’t charged with a specific act of violence or a more serious crime.

From Roger Parloff, "Are Judges Showing Their Political Colors in the Jan. 6 Criminal Cases?"

Earlier this month, a Washington Post analysis suggested that the sentences of Jan. 6 Capitol riot defendants may reflect political bias on the part of the judges handling these cases.

Is the Post right and, more broadly, are judges showing their political colors in other ways involving these defendants? The evidence is mixed.  On the one hand, as we’ll see, judges have shown commendable bipartisanship in how they’ve handled certain key issues.  At the same time, the Post is clearly onto something. At least an undercurrent of low-grade tribalism has often surfaced in the judges’ handling of these cases....

Here’s what the Post did.  It reviewed the 74 sentences that had been handed down by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (where all the Jan. 6 Capitol riot cases are being filed) as of the first anniversary of the event.  Then it compared those sentences to the terms the prosecutors had sought.

As an initial matter, the Post found that 49 defendants — two-thirds — received lighter sentences than prosecutors had recommended....

Still, when the paper drilled down, it uncovered some unmistakable trends. Of the 49 sentences that were lighter than prosecutors sought, 30 (61 percent) had been handed down by Republican appointees. This tilt could not be explained by the distribution of Republican appointees on the bench. Of all the judges who have sentenced a Capitol riot defendant, 10 were appointed by Democrats, while eight were appointed by Republicans.

Upon swiveling the tables — homing in on which judges imposed sentences that were harsher than the prosecutors requested — a mirror-image pattern emerged.  Of the 11 sentences that were tougher than the government sought, nine (82 percent) were imposed by Democratic appointees.

Some of many prior related posts:

January 20, 2022 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Due surely to implementation of FIRST STEP earned-time credits, federal prison population drops by nearly 4,000 in one week

As noted in this prior post from last Thursday, the Department of Justice last week officially announced its new rule for "implementing the Time Credits program required by the First Step Act" and began awarding retroactive credits to those who were eligible and had already done the work to earn credits.  In my post, I commented that, with the retroactive application of these credits, it would be interesting to see if the federal prison population (which as of Jan 13 BOP reported at 157,596 "Total Federal Inmates") would start to decline.  

A week later, on the first day that BOP updates here its reports of "Total Federal Inmates," there is a dramatic change in the total federal prison population.  Specifically, this morning BOP reports 153,855 "Total Federal Inmates," a decline of 3,741 persons now federal inmates.  This roughly 2.5% drop in the federal inmate population in one week is surely the result of the implementation of FIRST STEP Act earned-time credits, and it will now be interested to see if there are continued drops in the weeks ahead.  (I suspect there will be as implementation must take more than just a week, though I will be very surprised if there are subsequent drops as large as this one.)

Among the notable parts of this story is that it represents a bi-partisan, multi-Congress, multi-administration achievement many years in the making.  Of course, the formal law making this possible was the FIRST STEP Act which was enacted with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress in 2018 and which President Trump signed after he helped get to the bill to the finish line.  But, well before that bill was passed, congressional leaders and the Justice Department during the Obama years had started drafting and building consensus around the prison reform elements of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (first discussed here in October 2015).  And now, of course, it is the Justice Department of the Biden Administration that finalized and now implements this important earned-time credits program required by the FIRST STEP Act.   

Prior recent related posts:

January 20, 2022 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Frustrating (but still fascinating) SCOTUS argument on crack offense resentencing under FIRST STEP Act

The Supreme Court heard oral argument today in Concepcion v. USNo. 20-1650, to address this technical question as presented by the Petitioners: "Whether, when deciding if it should 'impose a reduced sentence' on an individual under section 404(b) of the First Step Act of 2018, 21 U.S.C. § 841 note, a district court must or may consider intervening legal and factual developments."  Perhaps in part because the federal government agrees that a district court "may" consider new facts at crack offense resentencing, it seems likely that the defendant here will secure some form of relief.  But, perhaps in part because of the federal government's position, a number of Justices seemed quite eager to talk up the virtues of limiting the scope of a crack offense resentencing.  And because everyone talked at great length about sentencing laws and practices — save Justices Barrett and Thomas, who were mostly quiet — all federal sentencing fans will want to make time to listen to (or read) the oral argument available here.

Many aspects of the argument were fascinating, included Justice Breyer's persistent eagerness to talk up the US Sentencing Commission and even USSC staff documents.  But I found the tenor and tone of the entire argument to be somewhat frustrating given the historical context of unjust crack sentencing.  The advocates and the Justices often suggested it was exceptional that Congress provided for crack resentencings, and the Assistant SG repeatedly spoke of the defendant's original "lawful sentence."  Nobody really mentioned at all the exceptionally unjust and unfair original 100-1 crack sentencing ratio and how that injustice was overwhelmingly acknowledged by Congress through the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 and finally fixed retroactively  though the FIRST STEP Act of 2018.  Put more directly, Congress has twice made quite clear that it believes that crack defendants sentenced before 2010 received unjust and wrong sentences, even if those sentences may have been technically "lawful."  

In other words, what is fundamentally at issue in Concepcion is whether a group of defendants (almost all of whom are persons of color) who have been serving unjust and wrong federal sentences for more than a decade should be limited in how they can argue for now getting a more just and rightful sentence.  Most fundamentally, these crack defendants want to argue that they should also benefit at resentencing from other improvements in the guidelines apart from crack reforms.  But the Assistant AG expressed concern that allowing arguments for a more just and rightful sentence based on new guidelines could lead to an "unjustified windfall for a select subset of crack cocaine offenders."  But, as I see it, understanding how these defendants have been subject to unjust sentencing for many years, it is functionally impossible for them to really get any "windfall."  Indeed, allowing current new and improved law to inform a new and improved sentence for these crack defendants is the exact opposite of "unjustified windfall."  It is what all should recognize as justice, years late, but hopefully not short.

January 19, 2022 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Pope Francis speaking out again on behalf of "our brothers and our sisters who are in prison"

This new AP article, headlined "Pope on prisons: No inmate should ever be deprived of hope," reports on some of the latest comments from Pope Francis about prisons and prisoners.  Here are the highlights along with some Italian backstory that may account for the pope's latest remarks:

Pope Francis issued a plea on behalf of prison inmates Wednesday, saying they should never be deprived of hope and always be given the opportunity to redeem themselves.

In remarks at his weekly public audience at the Vatican, Francis told the faithful that “we risk being imprisoned in a justice that doesn’t allow one to easily get back up again and confuses redemption with punishment.”

“For this, I want to recall today in a particular way our brothers and our sisters who are in prison,” the pontiff said. “It’s right that those who have made a mistake pay for their mistake, but it’s even more right that those who have done wrong should be able to redeem oneself from their mistake. There can’t be sentences without windows of hope.’’

Francis didn’t cite the prison policies or justice systems of any particular countries as problematic. Catholic teaching holds that the death penalty has no justification in modern society. During his papacy, Francis has made attention to the needs of communities on society’s margins, including prison populations, a priority.

“Let’s think of our incarcerated brothers and sisters, and let’s think about the tenderness of God for them and pray for them so that they may find in that window of hope a way out toward a better life,” Francis said in concluding his remarks Wednesday.

Italy’s justice minister, while briefing lawmakers in Parliament on criminal justice reform Wednesday, decried overcrowding in the country’s prisons, describing it as the most serious of all the problems plaguing the penal system.  Justice Minister Marta Cartabia said Italy’s prisons were 14% overcrowded. “It’s a condition that aggravates the relationships among inmates and which makes the work of prison personnel, often victims of aggression, even more difficult,” she said. “Overcrowding means greater difficulty in guaranteeing security and greater difficulty in proposing activities that facilitate paths to rehabilitation.”

Cartabia said reforms were under way to allow for sentences that provide alternatives to prison. But she noted that 69,000 persons are already serving their sentences outside prison walls, compared to some 54,000 inmates in Italy’s criminal justice system.

Notably, the United States has about 5 times the population of Italy, but has about 25 times as many prisoners.  According to this site, the US violent crime rate and murder rate is also five times the rate in Italy.

A few prior related posts about Pope Francis'  "sentencing advocacy":

January 19, 2022 in Religion, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (0)

Guest posts on big Seventh Circuit Wilks decision on Bail Reform Act’s "presumption of detention"

6a00d83451574769e202788010ea87200d-320wiI hope readers recall the series of guest posts from a few years ago authored by Alison Siegler, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the University of Chicago Law School's Federal Criminal Justice Clinic, concerning the extraordinary litigation her clinic has done in response to so-called "stash house stings."  Not too long ago, Alison wrote to me to highlight a big new Seventh Circuit ruling on the Bail Reform Act that related to another focus of her work.  I suggested that she do another guest post series on the ruling because this was a legal space I know little about.  She has prepared two long posts on the topic, and here is the first:

===

GUEST BLOG POSTS RE WILKS AND THE PRESUMPTION OF DETENTION by ALISON SIEGLER

PART I

This is the first of two guest posts discussing a groundbreaking opinion that addresses the Bail Reform Act’s “presumption of detention.”

The BRA’s presumption of detention applies to “nearly half of all federal criminal cases and to 93 percent of all drug cases.” Alison Siegler & Erica Zunkel, Rethinking Federal Bail Advocacy to Change the Culture of Detention, THE CHAMPION 46, 50 (July 2020); 18 U.S.C. § 3142(e)(2)–(3). The most common types of cases in which the presumption applies are drug cases, § 924(c) gun cases, and minor victim cases. A study from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts finds that the “presumption of detention . . . is driving high federal detention rates,” and that in practice, the presumption “has become an almost de facto detention order.” Amaryllis Austin, The Presumption for Detention Statute’s Relationship to Release Rates, 81 FED. PROBATION 52, 56, 61 (2017).  The same study found that “the presumption increases the detention rate without advancing community safety. Rather than jailing only the worst of the worst, the presumption over-incarcerates the lowest-risk offenders in the system.” Siegler & Zunkel, supra, at 50 (citing Austin, supra, at 57). “Now, with the presumption as a driving force, federal pretrial detention rates have skyrocketed, with three in four people jailed before trial — a 75 percent detention rate that falls disproportionately on people of color. This is mass incarceration in action.” Alison Siegler & Kate Harris, How Did the Worst of the Worst Become 3 Out of 4?, N.Y. TIMES (Feb. 24, 2021).  Courts often assume that the presumption ties their hands, and defense attorneys sometimes waive the right to seek release in presumption cases because challenging pretrial detention feels futile.

An important recent Seventh Circuit opinion reminds us that is not how the presumption is supposed to operate as a matter of law. United States v. Wilks, 15 F.4th 842, 844 (7th Cir. 2021) (reversing a district court’s revocation of pretrial release because “the judge did not hew to the statutory framework in making the revocation decision”). Wilks illuminates the operation of the presumption in a way that enables lawyers to push back on the presumption’s worst manifestations.

Wilks clarifies numerous key aspects of the limits of the § 3142(e) presumption of detention.

First, even when a presumption of detention is triggered, “the burden of persuasion always rests with the government.” Wilks, 15 F.4th at 846–47.

Second, the presumption is intended to be easy to rebut. See 18 U.S.C. § 3142(e)(3) (“Subject to rebuttal by the person . . .”); see also Wilks, 15 F.4th at 846 (“A defendant charged with a serious drug crime . . . is subject to a rebuttable presumption.”).

Third, “an unrebutted presumption is not, by itself, an adequate reason to order detention. Rather, the presumption is considered together with the factors listed in § 3142(g).” Wilks, 15 F.4th at 847 (citation omitted).

Fourth, once the presumption is rebutted, it carries a lot less weight.

January 19, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

SCOTUS to hear argument over terms of crack offense resentencing under FIRST STEP Act

The Supreme Court will be hearing oral argument on Wednesday morning in Concepcion v. USNo. 20-1650, which presents the following sentencing issue as phrased by the petitioner in this brief:

Whether, when deciding if it should “impose a reduced sentence” on an individual under section 404(b) of the First Step Act of 2018, 21 U.S.C. § 841 note, a district court must or may consider intervening legal and factual developments.

The Government articulates the issues somewhat differently in its brief:

Whether a district court is required to consider all legal and factual developments occurring after an offender’s original sentencing — whether or not related to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, Pub. L. No. 111-220, 124 Stat. 2372 — in connection with a motion for a reduced sentence under Section 404 of the First Step Act of 2018, Pub. L. No. 115-391, 132 Stat. 5222.

I was happy to be able to join this law professors' amicus brief which stresses the centrality of the 3553(a) factors at federal sentencing, which calls for analysis of all relevant considerations at initial sentencings and at any resentencings.

January 18, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Helpful FAMM "Explainer" talks through DOJ rule for implementing earned time credits under FIRST STEP Act

As noted in this prior post, last week the Department of Justice announced its new rule for "implementing the Time Credits program required by the First Step Act."  Because this rule is to be applied retroactively and enables perhaps half of all current (and future) federal prisons to earn early release, it is a very big deal while also having lots and lots complicated implementation intricacies.  Helpfully, FAMM has this helpful new four-page document titled "First Step Act Earned Time Credits Rule Explainer," which starts this way:

On January 13, 2022, the BOP published a rule implementing the Earned Time Credits that were included in the First Step Act. There are a lot of questions about the rule, many of which this Explainer attempts to answer.  There is still much to learn, however, and we will continue to update this Explainer as we learn more.  Please understand that we cannot answer your questions about whether you or your loved one is eligible for credits toward pre-release custody or supervised release, among other things. 

Here are some of the essentials from the document provide a window into just some of the particulars:

Who is eligible to apply FSA Time Credits toward pre-release custody or supervised release?

  • People in BOP custody (including those in a halfway house or on home confinement);
  • who are serving a federal sentence;
  • who have successfully participated in Evidence-Based Recidivism Reducing Programs (EBRR or Programs) or Productive Activities (PA); 
  • who have been assessed as “minimum” or “low” risk for at least one assessment or who can obtain warden approval; and
  • who have earned credits equal to the remainder of their prison term.

Who is barred from either earning FSA Time Credits or applying those credits toward pre-release custody?

  • People serving sentences for convictions under state or District of Columbia law, or who have a final order of removal under immigration law, cannot apply credit toward pre-release custody or supervised release.
  • People serving a sentence for a conviction the First Step Act identifies as disqualifying cannot earn credit. In limited circumstances, certain prior convictions may also prohibit one from earning credit....

What do earned FSA Time Credits do?

  • Eligible people who have earned FSA Time Credits may have them applied toward pre-release custody (halfway house or home confinement transfers) or early transfer to supervised release (essentially shortening the sentence).
  • Transfer to supervised release is limited to one year, but people may be transferred to pre-release custody earlier

Prior related post:

January 18, 2022 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, January 17, 2022

How about passing the EQUAL Act so we can be "free at last" from the crack/powder sentencing disparity?

On MLK day, I have a tradition of making time to listen to the full "I Have A Dream" speech by Dr. King, which always delivers and always has its own unique power each and every listen.  In recent years, I have also used this day to explore Stanford University's awesome collection of MLK Papers; in posts linked below, I have quoted from various renown speeches and writings with an emphasis on the intersection of the civil rights movement and criminal justice reform.  But this recent news item from Wyoming has me today focused on a specific policy ask for advancing freedom and racial justice:

U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., became the seventh Republican co-sponsor of the EQUAL Act on Friday, which would fully and finally eliminate the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

The two substances are virtually identical and equally dangerous, and yet crack carries a penalty that is 18 times that of powder cocaine, according to a news release. The bill passed in the House of Representatives by a margin of 361-66, including 143 Republicans.

Lummis joined Republican Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Thom Tillis, R-N.C.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, as co-sponsors. Advocates from across the political spectrum said the addition of Lummis is a clear indication that the EQUAL Act has the momentum needed to pass the Senate....

The EQUAL Act has support from groups across the political spectrum, including the Major Cities Chiefs Association, National District Attorneys Association, Americans for Tax Reform, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Prison Fellowship, Due Process Institute, Americans for Prosperity, FAMM, Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition, Faith and Freedom Coalition, ALEC Action, R Street Institute, FreedomWorks and Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

With seven notable and diverse GOP senators serving now serving as co-sponsors for the EQUAL Act, I have to believe this bill could easily overcome any filibuster efforts and secure passage on the floor of the Senate (likely by the 5 to 1 margin that it secured passage in the House).  So why is this not getting done ASAP?  To its credit, the Biden Administration has testified in support of the EQUAL Act in the US Senate, but I have not heard Prez Biden himself (or VP Harris) lean into this issue at all.  (Notably, if they want to focus on voting rights as a focal point for civil rights advocacy, they might also really advance the MLK legacy by taking on felony disenfranchisement.  Moreover, they should try to get bipartisan bills like the EQUAL Act passed into law so that people who care about criminal justice reform can better understand why they should bother to vote at all.)  

In part because US Sentencing Commission data reveal that "only" 1,217 persons were sentenced on crack trafficking offenses in FY 2020, which accounts for "only" 7.5% of all offenders sentenced for drug trafficking offenses, the import and impact of the EQUAL Act would not be as huge now as it might have been in years past.  (In FY 2009, just before the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the crack/powder disparity from 100-1 to 18-1, there were over 5,000 persons sentenced on crack offenses; indeed, more than 5,000 persons were sentenced each year on federal crack offenses through most of the 2000s.)  Still, the USSC 2020 data show that over 93% of those sentenced for federal crack offenses are persons of color (with 77% black), so that there is still a profound inequitable impact from our federal sentencing scheme that still unfairly treats crack offenses as much more serious than functionally comparable powder offenses.

Links to some prior MLK Day posts:

A few related posts on the EQUAL Act:

January 17, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Latest issue of Dædalus explores "Reimagining Justice: The Challenges of Violence & Punitive Excess"

Wi22_Cover_ForWebThe Winter 2022 issue of the journal Dædalus has a series of essay on the topic of "Reimagining Justice: The Challenges of Violence & Punitive Excess."  Here is the issue's introduction from this issue page and a listing of the article titles and authors:

America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Criminal justice policies of punitive excess and unequal protection under the law have sustained racial exclusion and added to the harsh conditions of poverty.  The Winter 2022 issue demands that we imagine a different kind of public safety that relies not on police and prisons, but on a rich community life that has eliminated racism and poverty.  Many of the solutions will lie beyond the boundaries of the criminal justice system and public policy, yet much of the work is already being done in communities around the country. And these efforts share, as the essays in this issue suggest, a common commitment to the values of healing, reconciliation, and human dignity.

Violence, Criminalization & Punitive Excess by Bruce Western and Sukyi McMahon

The Story of Violence in America by Kellie Carter Jackson

The Problem of State Violence by Paul Butler

Public Health Approaches to Reducing Community Gun Violence by Daniel W. Webster

Seeing Guns to See Urban Violence: Racial Inequality & Neighborhood Context by David M. Hureau

Developmental & Ecological Perspective on the Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma & Violence by Micere Keels

The Effects of Violence on Communities: The Violence Matrix as a Tool for Advancing More Just Policies by Beth E. Richie

Faces of the Aftermath of Visible & Invisible Violence & Loss: Radical Resiliency of Justice & Healing by Barbara L. Jones

The Foundational Lawlessness of the Law Itself: Racial Criminalization & the Punitive Roots of Punishment in America by Khalil Gibran Muhammad

Criminal Law & Migration Control: Recent History & Future Possibilities by Jennifer M. Chacón

Due Process & the Theater of Racial Degradation: The Evolving Notion of Pretrial Punishment in the Criminal Courts by Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve

Recognition, Repair & the Reconstruction of “Square One” by Geoff K. Ward

Knowing What We Want: A Decent Society, A Civilized System of Justice & A Condition of Dignity by Jonathan Simon

All of these articles (along with abstracts) can be accessed at this webpage.

January 17, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Paid Jailer: How Sheriff Campaign Dollars Shape Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this new report published by Common Cause and Communities for Sheriff Accountability. Here is part of the report's introduction:

In the criminal legal system, the patterns are clear and striking.  Business interests can establish a relationship with sheriffs by sending even small contributions.  Construction companies provide backing to sheriffs who proceed to build new jails.  Health care companies fund campaigns, and then receive multimillion-dollar contracts, with no criteria for results or the health of incarcerated people.  The list of donors with direct conflicts is striking and includes employed deputies, bail bonds companies, weapons dealers, and gun ranges.  It is a system incentivized to jail more people and cast a blind eye to any harm suffered by those within the jails.

Our research, conducted in 11 states, in less than 3 percent of sheriffs offices, documents approximately 13,000 apparent conflicts of interest, primarily between 2010 and 2021.  We have identified upward of $6 million, approximately 40% of all examined contributions, that create potential conflicts of interest.  We have selected these sheriffs using a combination of public interest, and random selection, so these sheriffs are more likely to represent a pattern than exceptional cases....

Sheriffs are politicians who make major decisions about health and safety for millions of Americans — and they shouldn’t be up for sale to the highest bidder.  Alongside carceral reforms and community investment, small-dollar democracy programs can amplify the voices of those most impacted by overincarceration and can help to reenvision a justice system that works for everyone and not just a wealthy few.

January 17, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Rounding up some more notable recent criminal justice reads at the start the new year

Though the new year is now just two week old, I have seen more than two weeks worth of interesting reads that I have not had a chance to blog about.   I did a round up last Sunday here, but here are a bunch more pieces worth checking out:

From the Christian Science Monitor, "A step toward better justice: Prying open the ‘black box’ of plea deals"

From the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, "A radical new approach to measuring recidivism risk"

From Governing, "Prison Population Drops as States Revamp Admission Policies: State prisons quickly adjusted policies and procedures when the coronavirus pandemic hit to ensure the health and safety of the incarcerated individuals and staff. If these pandemic changes become permanent, states could save $2.7 billion annually."

From The Hill, "Colorado trucker's case provides pathways to revive pardon power"

From the Los Angeles Times, "California was supposed to clear cannabis convictions. Tens of thousands are still languishing"

From The Marshall Project, "People in the Scandal-Plagued Federal Prison System Reveal What They Need in a New Director: 'This is kind of like AA: To move forward, first you have to admit there’s a problem'."

From NBC News, "The Federal Bureau of Prisons is getting a new leader — and another shot at reforms: A year after taking office, President Joe Biden has disappointed many prisoners and guards who were hoping for big changes. Now he has a chance to do more."

From the Prison Policy Initiative, "New data: The changes in prisons, jails, probation, and parole in the first year of the pandemic: Newly released data from 2020 show the impact of early-pandemic correctional policy choices and what kind of change is possible under pressure.  But the data also show how inadequate, uneven, and unsustained policy changes have been: most have already been reversed."

From the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project, "New Report Shows Prison Releases Decreased During The Pandemic, Despite A Drop In Incarceration"

From Washington Monthly, "Critical Race Query: If America is irredeemable, why are racial disparities in the criminal justice system plummeting?"

January 16, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)