Friday, February 15, 2019

Special Counsel's office files sentencing memorandum for Paul Manafort seemingly supporting guideline range of 235 to 293 months' imprisonment

As reported in this Politico article, headlined "Mueller: Manafort deserves 19.5 to 24.5 years in prison for Virginia convictions, Special Counsel Robert Mueller filed this submission "to address the sentencing of defendant Paul J. Manafort, Jr."  The Politico piece, along with lots of other press accounts, report that "Robert Mueller’s office recommended on Friday that Paul Manafort get up to 24-and-a-half years in prison for his conviction last summer for financial malfeasance."  But a careful read of the submission reveals that there is no firm sentencing recommendation in the memo, rather its introduction and conclusion includes these passages hedging a bit:

As an initial matter, the government agrees with the guidelines analysis in the Presentence Investigation Report (PSR) and its calculation of the defendant’s Total Offense Level as 38 with a corresponding range of imprisonment of 235 to 293 months, a fine range of $50,000 to $24,371,497.74, a term of supervised release of up to five years, restitution in the amount of $24,815,108.74, and forfeiture in the amount of $4,412,500.

Second, while the government does not take a position as to the specific sentence to be imposed here, the government sets forth below its assessment of the nature of the offenses and the characteristics of the defendant under Title 18, United States Code, Section 3553(a). The defendant stands convicted of the serious crimes of tax fraud, bank fraud, and failing to file a foreign bank account report.  Manafort was the lead perpetrator and a direct beneficiary of each offense.  And while some of these offenses are commonly prosecuted, there was nothing ordinary about the millions of dollars involved in the defendant’s crimes, the duration of his criminal conduct, or the sophistication of his schemes.  Together with the relevant criminal conduct, Manafort’s misconduct involved more than $16 million in unreported income resulting in more than $6 million in federal taxes owed, more than $55 million hidden in foreign bank accounts, and more than $25 million secured from financial institutions through lies resulting in a fraud loss of more than $6 million.  Manafort committed these crimes over an extended period of time, from at least 2010 to 2016. His criminal decisions were not momentary or limited in time; they were routine.  And Manafort’s repeated misrepresentations to financial institutions were brazen, at least some of which were made at a time when he was the subject of significant national attention.

Neither the Probation Department nor the government is aware of any mitigating factors. Manafort did not commit these crimes out of necessity or hardship.  He was well educated, professionally successful, and financially well off.  He nonetheless cheated the United States Treasury and the public out of more than $6 million in taxes at a time when he had substantial resources. Manafort committed bank fraud to supplement his liquidity because his lavish spending exhausted his substantial cash resources when his overseas income dwindled....

In the end, Manafort acted for more than a decade as if he were above the law, and deprived the federal government and various financial institutions of millions of dollars.  The sentence here should reflect the seriousness of these crimes, and serve to both deter Manafort and others from engaging in such conduct....

For a decade, Manafort repeatedly violated the law.  Considering only the crimes charged in this district, they make plain that Manafort chose to engage in a sophisticated scheme to hide millions of dollars from United States authorities.  And when his foreign income stream dissipated in 2015, he chose to engage in a series of bank frauds in the United States to maintain his extravagant lifestyle, at the expense of various financial institutions.  Manafort chose to do this for no other reason than greed, evidencing his belief that the law does not apply to him.  Manafort solicited numerous professionals and others to reap his ill-gotten gains.  The sentence in this case must take into account the gravity of this conduct, and serve to both specifically deter Manafort and those who would commit a similar series of crimes.

Some prior related posts:

February 15, 2019 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sad start to what should become happier compassionate release tales after passage of FIRST STEP Act

Though the (clumsy) increase in good-time credits has received considerable attention since the passage of the FIRST STEP Act (see prior posts here and here and here and here), I find the change to the administration of so-called compassionate release rules to be among the most fascinating elements of the new legislation.  If legislative enactments can have "sleeper provisions," I would call the compassionate release changes the sleeper provisions of FIRST STEP.  This four-page FAMM document, titled "Compassionate Release and the First Step Act: Then and Now,"  reviews some basics of the changes made by the FIRST STEP Act for those eager for a short accounting of before and after.

Today's New York Times covers this issue through one particular sad story under the headline "A New Law Made Him a ‘Free Man on Paper,’ but He Died Behind Bars." This article is worth reading in full, and here are excerpts:

At a federal courthouse in Tennessee, a judge signed an order allowing an ailing inmate to go home. But he died in a prison hospice before he heard the news.

At his wife’s home in Indiana, as she was getting a wheelchair, bedpans and other medical equipment ready for his arrival, the phone rang. “It was the chaplain,” said the wife, Marie Dianne Cheatham. “He said, ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you.’ And my heart fell through the floor. I knew what he was going to say.”

For years, terminally ill federal prisoners like Ms. Cheatham’s husband, Steve, have in theory had the option of what is called compassionate release. But in practice, the Bureau of Prisons would often decline to grant it, allowing hundreds of petitioners to die in custody. One of the provisions of the new criminal justice law, signed by President Trump on Dec. 21, sought to change that, giving inmates the ability to appeal directly to the courts.

Mr. Cheatham, 59, did just that, filing a petition last month so that he could leave prison in North Carolina and go home to die. He became one of the first to be granted release under the new law. But then came the harsh truth that made so many families pin their hopes on the law’s passage in the first place: Days and even hours can mean the difference between dying at home or behind bars.

Created in the 1980s, compassionate release allowed the Bureau of Prisons to recommend that certain inmates who no longer posed a threat be sent home, usually when nearing death. But even as more and more Americans grew old and frail in federal penitentiaries, a multilayered bureaucracy meant that relatively few got out.

A 2013 report by a watchdog agency found that the compassionate release system was cumbersome, poorly managed and impossible to fully track. An analysis of federal data by The New York Times and The Marshall Project found that 266 inmates who had applied between 2013 and 2017 had died, either after being denied or while still waiting for a decision. During the same period the bureau approved only 6 percent of applications.  Many state penal systems, which house the majority of American inmates, have their own medical release programs with similar problems.

“It is a system that is sorely needing compassion,” said Mary Price, the general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which advocates criminal justice reform....  The law’s passage has caused a scramble to use the new appeal process for compassionate release, said Ms. Price, whose organization has worked to arrange lawyers for some of those inmates. “There’s a road map now for this, and a way home for people that we’ve never seen before,” Ms. Price said.

Before the First Step Act passed, Ms. Cheatham followed its fortunes closely, hoping it could lead to a shortened sentence for her husband, whose health was deteriorating. Last fall, he was diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer and told he had only a few months to live. In mid-December, he applied for compassionate release, Ms. Cheatham said.

The new law requires that prisoners be told within 72 hours of a terminal diagnosis that they may apply for compassionate release, and that the Bureau of Prisons aid those who wish to apply but cannot do so on their own.  After a few weeks, Ms. Cheatham had heard nothing back.  The Bureau of Prisons declined to answer most questions about Mr. Cheatham’s case, but did say that it had not received his application for compassionate release until Jan. 11.  According to the judge’s order, the request was filed on Dec. 13.

A senator’s office said the government shutdown would make it difficult for them to provide immediate help.  Finally, she called a federal public defender in Tennessee, where her husband had been sentenced, who told her about the new process allowing an appeal after 30 days.  Within a few days, on Jan. 25, they filed a preliminary motion for immediate release.

It was to be a homecoming to a home Steve Cheatham had never seen.  The Cheathams had met and married after he was already in prison, serving a nearly 16-year sentence for a series of bank robberies in 2006.  According to an F.B.I. agent’s account, Mr. Cheatham passed notes to tellers at three banks in Tennessee, making off with about $13,000. The agent made no mention of any weapon....

On Jan. 30, the formal request for compassionate release was filed, and the next day, a judge signed the order to send Mr. Cheatham home.  Ms. Cheatham got the news shortly after 1 p.m.  “My heart just was so full of joy,” she said.  “I called everybody I could think of to tell them,” including the prison chaplain, whom she asked to deliver the good news to her husband.

Later that afternoon, the chaplain called back. Mr. Cheatham had died before he could tell him about the judge’s order.  Ms. Cheatham was devastated, but expressed her hope that on some level, Mr. Cheatham may have sensed the news.  “At least,” she wrote to a supporter, “he died a free man on paper.”

Some of many prior related posts:

February 15, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Federal judge rejects Sayfullo Saipov's efforts to block capital prosecution based on Prez Trump's tweets

As reported in this New York Times piece, headlined "Trump’s Tweets Do Not Bar Prosecutors From Seeking Death in Terror Case, Judge Rules," a federal judge yesterday issued a notable ruling in a high-profile capital case. Here are the details:

When President Trump said on Twitter that an Uzbek man charged with using a pickup truck to kill eight people “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY,” the man’s lawyers asked a judge to bar prosecutors from seeking execution, saying the decision had become too politicized.  But a federal judge in Manhattan ruled on Thursday that prosecutors could seek capital punishment despite the president’s comments.

Defense lawyers had argued the president’s tweet and other statements he made on Twitter had put political pressure on the attorney general at the time, Jeff Sessions, to seek a death sentence.  The lawyers pointed to public reports that Mr. Trump was considering firing the attorney general for not following his wishes, and said Mr. Sessions would not be able to make an impartial decision.

In his ruling, Judge Vernon S. Broderick wrote that Mr. Trump’s statements advocating for the death penalty “were perhaps ill-advised given the pendency of this case.”  Still, the judge said the argument that Mr. Sessions was improperly motivated to seek execution was “pure speculation made without a scintilla of direct factual support.”  The judge said that without more evidence he could not interfere with “the attorney general’s presumptive authority to make charging decisions.”

In September, Mr. Sessions went ahead and directed prosecutors to seek the death penalty for the defendant, Sayfullo Saipov, 31, if he is convicted at trial, even though Judge Broderick had not yet ruled on the motion concerning the president’s tweets.  Six weeks later, Mr. Trump fired Mr. Sessions. 

Mr. Saipov is accused of driving the truck down a crowded bike path along the Hudson River on Oct. 31, 2017, and, after smashing into a school bus, jumping out and running down the highway, shouting “God is great” in Arabic.  He was taken into custody after being shot by a police officer.  He has pleaded not guilty to eight capital counts of murder and other charges, and is scheduled for trial in October.

Judge Broderick wrote that Mr. Saipov had “offered no evidence that the president’s remarks impacted the attorney general’s decision-making process in any way.”  To the contrary, the judge said, Mr. Sessions had “categorically renounced other provocative remarks made by the president” and had vowed that the Justice Department would “not be improperly influenced by political considerations.”

Prior related posts:

February 15, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 14, 2019

"Justice Scalia's Eighth Amendment Jurisprudence: The Failure of Sake-of-Argument Originalism"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Craig Lerner now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

How is an originalist judge in the common law tradition to reconcile the competing demands of the Constitution’s original meaning and an accumulating body of nonoriginalist precedents?  This Article explores the dilemma of constitutional originalism through a comprehensive review of Justice Scalia’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  In this legal context the dilemma is infused with a moral dimension.  Many punishment practices common in 1791 are widely considered barbaric today.  When confronted with the choice between the Eighth Amendment’s original meaning and a clearly erroneous precedent that better aligns the Constitution with the moral tenor of the times, which is an originalist judge to choose?

In an essay published soon after joining the Supreme Court, Justice Scalia outlined an answer to this question.  He anticipated that his Eighth Amendment opinions would be framed as arguments in the alternative — first, the Constitution, properly understood, did not foreclose a punishment; and, in the alternative, even if nonorginalist precedents were followed for the sake of argument, the result would be the same, because there was “inadequate indication that any evolution in social attitudes has occurred.”  Almost all of his Eighth Amendment opinions proved to be of this character. 

As demonstrated in this Article, Justice Scalia’s hopeful expectation that he could achieve orginalist results through such a strategy was disappointed.  One problem is that the strategy presumes that there has been no meaningful “evolution in social attitudes” with respect to punishment since 1791.  The deeper problem is that it is not enough for the community’s “social attitudes” to remain durable.  The relevant question is whether the moral sentiments of the legal elites who ascertain these “social attitudes” remain durable.  In one of his final Eighth Amendment opinions, Justice Scalia conceded the defeat of sake-of-argument originalism.  He intimated a willingness to pursue a more heroic originalist agenda, potentially displacing mountains of nonoriginalist precedent.  This Article highlights the tension an originalist judge faces, more than two centuries after the Constitution’s ratification, between a principled adherence to original meaning, which can appear revolutionary, and a humbler originalism, which can appear opportunistic.

February 14, 2019 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

US Senate confirms William Barr to be US Attorney General (again)

As reported in this NBC News piece, "President Donald Trump's attorney general nominee William Barr was confirmed in the Senate on Thursday to take over the Justice Department as attorney general, where he will oversee special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe." Here is more:

Barr, 68, was confirmed in a 54-45 vote that largely fell along party lines. He will be sworn in Thursday afternoon in the Oval Office by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, the White House told NBC News.

Barr was widely expected to be confirmed by the Republican-majority Senate on Thursday. He had served in the same role more than two decades earlier in President George H.W. Bush's administration, and had passed procedural hurdles in the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate in recent votes.

A few senators broke with their party in the vote, however. Among Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Doug Jones of Alabama — both of whom represent deep-red states — voted for Barr, as did first-term Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was the only Republican to vote against Barr's nomination.

Though various folks will continue to speculate what new leadership at DOJ might mean for the Mueller investigation, I am unsurprisingly most interested to see how new AG Barr approaches the implementation of the FIRST STEP Act and how he deals with state marijuana reforms.

Prior related posts:

February 14, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ninth Circuit going en banc to reconsider intersection of Eighth Amendment juve jurisprudence and federal sentencing guidelines

In this post back in July, I noted work on an amicus brief in support of a Ninth Circuit en banc petition in US v. Riley Briones.  The panel opinion in Briones is available at this link, where you will find a split decision in which the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's adoption of the federal sentencing guidelines as the key factor in the course imposing a life without parole federal sentence on a juvenile offender.  The amicus brief, which is available here, argued "It is unreasonable — and unconstitutional — for a court to routinely apply the Sentencing Guidelines when a defendant is subject to a Guideline sentencing range of life without parole for a crime committed as a juvenile."

I am now pleased to be able to report that, as of yesterday, the panel opinion in Briones is technically no longer good law thanks to this Feb 13, 2019 order by the Ninth Circuit:

Upon the vote of a majority of nonrecused active judges, it is ordered that this case be reheard en banc pursuant to Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 35(a) and Circuit Rule 35-3. The three-judge panel disposition in this case shall not be cited as precedent by or to any court of the Ninth Circuit.

Though I am not exactly sure of the timelines for en banc review in the Ninth Circuit, I presume briefing and argument will take a number of months though we might still get a new decision before the end of this year.  Meanwhile, folks who follow this area of jurisprudence closely may recall that the Third Circuit is also in the midst of en banc review of related post-Miller Eighth Amendment application issues US v. Corey Grant, No. 16-3820, as discussed in this post from a few months ago.  A helpful reader reported to me that oral argument in Grant is scheduled for next week.

I have been a bit surprised that we have not yet seen the Supreme Court take up any follow-up Eighth Amendment cases since it decided Graham and Miller in short succession in 2010 and 2012.  It is interesting to speculate if either the Briones or Grant cases might interest the Justices after (inevitable?) big split en banc circuit rulings in these cases.

February 14, 2019 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"The Dark Figure of Sexual Recidivism"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Nicholas Scurich and Richard John now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Empirical studies of sexual offender recidivism have proliferated in recent decades. Virtually all of the studies define recidivism as a new legal charge or conviction for a sexual crime, and these studies tend to find recidivism rates on the order of 5-15% after 5 years and 10-25% after 10+ years.  It is uncontroversial that such a definition of recidivism underestimates the true rate of sexual recidivism because most sexual crime is not reported to legal authorities, the so-called “dark figure of crime.”

To estimate the magnitude of the dark figure of sexual recidivism, this paper uses a probabilistic simulation approach in conjunction with a.) victim self-report survey data about the rate of reporting sexual crime to legal authorities, b.) offender self-report data about the number of victims per offender, and c.) different assumptions about the chances of being convicted of a new sexual offense once it is reported.  Under any configuration of assumptions, the dark figure is substantial, and as a consequence, the disparity between recidivism defined as a new legal charge or conviction for a sex crime and recidivism defined as actually committing a new sexual crime is large.  These findings call into question the utility of recidivism studies that rely exclusively on official crime statistics to define sexual recidivism, and highlight the need for additional, long-term studies that use a variety of different measures to assess whether or not sexual recidivism has occurred.

February 14, 2019 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10)

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Paul Manafort facing potentially longer sentence after judge concludes he failed to comply with plea deal

As reported in this new Politco piece, a "federal judge ruled partly in favor of special counsel Robert Mueller on Wednesday that Paul Manafort violated the terms of his guilty plea by lying to federal prosecutors and a grand jury." Here is more and why this is ultimately a sentencing story:

The decision by U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson confirms some of Mueller’s latest set of charges against the former Donald Trump campaign chairman that he lied during guilty-plea-stipulated cooperation sessions about his contacts with Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime aide alleged to have ties to Russian intelligence.  Jackson, however, ruled that Mueller had “failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence” that Manafort intentionally made a false statement about his contacts with the Trump administration.

The judge’s four-page ruling against Manafort [which is available here] means the 69-year old political operative will likely get an even stiffer penalty at his March 13 sentencing hearing in Washington, D.C., federal court.  She said Mueller was “no longer bound by its obligations under the plea agreement” terms he’d reached with Manafort in September, including the special counsel’s pledge to support a less-stringent sentence.

Manafort had previously been on track to get a 10-year cap on his prison sentence in his D.C. case under the terms of the original plea deal he struck with Mueller, which limited the charges he faced to conspiracy against the U.S. and conspiracy to obstruct justice while dropping foreign-lobbying and money-laundering charges.

The plea agreement had also called for Manafort to serve time concurrently from his D.C. case with any sentence he gets from his convictions in Alexandria, Va., on charges of bank and tax fraud.  But with Jackson’s order on Wednesday, Mueller is now free to recommend that Manafort serve his sentences consecutively.

Both Jackson and U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III, who presided in Manafort’s trial in Virginia and had postponed sentencing until the dispute over the lying charges was resolved, will have the final say in the decision on whether he serves back-to-back or simultaneous sentences.

Some prior related posts:

February 13, 2019 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Detailed memo maps out arguments and urges litigation for immediate good-time credit under FIRST STEP Act

A helpful reader alerted me to this notable new memorandum from the office of the Federal Public Defender for the District of Oregon titled "Delayed Implementation Of The First Step Act’s Good Time Credit Fix Violates The Rules Of Statutory Construction And Due Process Of Law." The memo is authored by Stephen Sady and Elizabeth Daily, and here is how it gets started:

With a single exception to date, thousands of federal prisoners who expected immediate release based on the First Step Act’s congressional clarification of the good time credit statute have been required to remain in custody beyond completion of their sentences, with many more scheduled to similarly serve unnecessary incarceration over the next six months.  The good time fix requires that prisoners showing exemplary compliance with institutional rules receive the full statutory 54 days of good time credits, rather than the 47 days presently provided, for each year of their term of imprisonment.  The Bureau of Prisons has continued to provide only 47 days of credit, claiming that a delayed effective date prevents it from implementing the good time fix until it develops an unrelated risk and needs assessment system. The Bureau should be following the rules of statutory construction, as guided by the Constitution, to immediately put into effect the only congressionally-approved manner of calculating good time credits.  The Executive Branch has the power -- and in good conscience the obligation -- to correct the wasteful and inhumane over-incarceration of prisoners who have reached their lawful sentence expiration date.

Rather than wait for the Executive Branch to do the right thing, prisoners’ representatives should litigate for immediate relief on their clients’ behalf from the Judicial Branch.  This article provides the legal grounds for relief in several parts. In Section A, we describe the history of the Bureau’s denial of the full good time credits intended by Congress and the First Step Act’s fix, which clarifies the correct 54-day calculation.  In Section B, we review the rules of statutory construction that call for immediate implementation of provisions, like the good time fix, that clarify congressional intent.  The second half of Section B specifically addresses the serious due process and equal protection problems avoided by immediate implementation of the good time fix.  In Section C, we outline the paths to expedited relief for the current federal prisoners suffering irreparable harm with each passing day.  The last sections address the need for counsel and include a description of the release of Mark Walker 60 days prior to his projected release date, as the first federal prisoner to receive the full 54 days of good time credit he earned under the statute.

Prior related posts:

February 13, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Federal district judge finds Alabama sex offender license plate and internet provisions violate First Amendment

Thanks to this post by Jacob Sullum at Reason, I see some notable constitutional reasoning has brought down two extreme sex offender provisions in Alabama law.  The full title of this reason posting provides the basics: "'Sex Offenders Are Not Second-Class Citizens,' Says Judge While Nixing Alabama Rules on First Amendment Grounds: The decision rejects driver's licenses labeled "CRIMINAL SEX OFFENDER" and a broad demand for reports on internet use." Here paragraphs from the posting (with a link to the opinion):

"Sex offenders are not second-class citizens," writes U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins in a recent decision overturning two provisions of the Alabama Sex Offender Registration and Community Notification Act (ASORCNA) on First Amendment grounds. "The Constitution protects their liberty and dignity just as it protects everyone else's."

Those points, which should be obvious, are a sadly necessary corrective to the hysteria that has driven legislators in one state after another to enact indiscriminate, mindlessly restrictive, and covertly punitive laws aimed at sex offenders. ASORCNA, which Watkins calls "the most comprehensive and debilitating sex-offender scheme in the nation," is a prime example....

On Monday, Judge Watkins ruled that Alabama's branding of registered sex offenders' identification cards is a form of compelled speech prohibited by the First Amendment. "The branded-ID requirement compels speech," he writes, "and it is not the least restrictive means of advancing a compelling state interest."  The state conceded that its ostensible purpose of alerting police officers to a sex offender's status could be served by a much less conspicuous mark, such as a letter, that the general public would not readily recognize as a badge of shame.  "Using one letter would keep officers informed while reducing the unnecessary disclosure of information to others," Watkins notes.

Another aspect of Alabama's "debilitating sex-offender scheme" is a requirement that people in the registry report "email addresses or instant message addresses or identifiers used, including any designations or monikers used for self-identification in Internet communications or postings other than those used exclusively in connection with a lawful commercial transaction."  Registrants also have to keep the authorities apprised of "any and all Internet service providers" they use.  The information, which includes mundane activities such as logging into a Wi-Fi network outside the home or registering with a website to comment on news articles, must be reported within three business days, and local law enforcement agencies have the discretion to demand that it be done in person.

February 13, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Illinois prosecutors appealing 81-month sentence given to former Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke for murder of Laquan McDonald

In the federal system, sentencing appeals brought by prosecutors are relatively rare but not always exceptional.  My sense is that prosecutorial appeals of sentences are even rarer in most state systems, and a state sentencing appeal brought this week by Illinois prosecutors comes in a case that is exceptional for all sort of reasons.  This extended Chicago Tribune article, headlined "Attorney general, special prosecutor challenge Jason Van Dyke’s sentence in petition to state Supreme Court," provides lots of background details and here are excerpts:

Special prosecutors and the Illinois attorney general’s office want the state’s highest court to order a resentencing for Jason Van Dyke, a move that if granted could result in a much harsher prison term for the former Chicago police officer convicted in the slaying of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

Their petition, filed Monday, does not explicitly target the length of the 6¾-year sentence, which many activists criticized as lenient.  But Kane County State’s Attorney Joseph McMahon, appointed to handle the Van Dyke case, and Attorney General Kwame Raoul argue that Judge Vincent Gaughan sentenced Van Dyke under improper legal guidelines, and note that a significantly longer sentence would be justifiable under state law.

“I recognize that a trial judge’s discretion in sentencing is to be given great deference,” Raoul said at a news conference Monday. “However, it is in the interest of justice that we do all within our power to make sure that such exercise in discretion be applied consistent with the mandates of law, no matter who the defendant and no matter who the victim.”

In response, Van Dyke’s attorneys said the prosecutors’ motivations were plainly political. “This case has come to represent all the wrongs, perceived wrongs, of the Chicago Police Department, and it’s fallen upon Jason Van Dyke as a person,” attorney Jennifer Blagg said. “So what he represents politically is why this is happening.”...

Van Dyke, 40, was convicted last year of one count of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery in the 2014 on-duty shooting of McDonald.  He was sentenced last month to 6¾ years in prison.  Gaughan sentenced Van Dyke only on the second-degree murder conviction, ruling that it was the more serious offense and that the aggravated battery counts should “merge” into it for purposes of sentencing....

But the prosecutors’ petition argues that Illinois law actually makes aggravated battery with a firearm the more serious offense, and therefore the state Supreme Court should order Gaughan to resentence the ex-patrol officer on those convictions instead.  The court should also direct Gaughan to determine which of the 16 gunshot wounds caused “severe bodily injury” and sentence him to consecutive prison terms for those counts, they state.

Prosecutors have argued that at least two of the wounds caused that kind of injury, which, the petition contends, would mean Van Dyke would face a minimum sentence of 18 years: six years for each of those two wounds, plus six more years for the other 14 counts.  An aggravated battery with a firearm conviction carries a sentence of six to 30 years in prison.  The range for second-degree murder is four to 20 years, but a judge can impose probation instead.

If the state Supreme Court chooses to consider the petition, there are a few potential outcomes, said longtime criminal defense attorney Mark Lyon.  “They will either have to say, ‘Judge Gaughan, you have to resentence this person,’ or they have to say (they) were wrong in the case where they said second-degree murder was always less serious than aggravated battery with a firearm,” Lyon said, referring to a previous ruling.

The court potentially could also order Gaughan to resentence Van Dyke on the aggravated battery but not make him rule on which of the 16 shots caused “severe bodily injury,” Lyon said, which would open the door for Gaughan to impose a prison term the same as the previous sentence, or slightly shorter.

But even in that scenario, Van Dyke would serve slightly more prison time.  Inmates convicted of aggravated battery with a firearm must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences — far higher than the 50 percent required by a second-degree murder conviction.  “It’s quite unlikely that Mr. Van Dyke comes out of this without some kind of upward modification of his sentence,” Lyon said. “How much, who knows.”

Van Dyke’s attorneys plan to file an objection to the prosecutors’ motion. The Supreme Court is not obligated to accept the prosecutors’ petition at all, and there is no time frame in which it must make a decision.

Prior related post:

February 13, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Unlocking the Black Box: How the Prosecutorial Transparency Act Will Empower Communities and Help End Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the the title of this notable new ACLU report.  Here is how the ACLU website describes the report's interests and approach:

Prosecutors’ offices are often black boxes.  There is little publicly available information about prosecutors’ policies and practices.  Trying to obtain private information from their offices is often difficult and time-consuming.  This lack of information makes it virtually impossible to hold prosecutors accountable for what they are doing — and what they are doing makes a difference in mass incarceration and with racial disparities.  What’s needed is comprehensive and mandatory transparency from all prosecutors. 

The solution is statewide legislation that sets minimum transparency standards for elected prosecutors, ensuring that they collect and make public data and policies so they are available to the communities that they serve.  The “Prosecutor Transparency Act” outlined in our new report creates a framework for how state legislators can hold their prosecutors accountable.

February 13, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

"The case for capping all prison sentences at 20 years"

The title of this post is the title of this very lengthy new piece by German Lopez at Vox.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts from the first part of the article:

America puts more people in jail and prison than any other country in the world.  Although the country has managed to slightly reduce its prison population in recent years, mass incarceration remains a fact of the US criminal justice system.

It’s time for a radical idea that could really begin to reverse mass incarceration: capping all prison sentences at no more than 20 years.  It may sound like an extreme, even dangerous, proposal, but there’s good reason to believe it would help reduce the prison population without making America any less safe....

Looking at the length of our prison sentences is one approach to reverse mass incarceration.  Empirical research has consistently found that locking up people for very long periods of time does little to nothing to combat crime, and may actually lead to more crime as people spend more time in prison — missing big life opportunities for legitimate careers, and being incarcerated with others who have ties to the criminal world.

There’s also good reason to believe that 20 years is a good cutoff for a maximum.  Studies have found that people almost always age out of crime, particularly by their late 30s and 40s.  If a person is locked up for a robbery or murder at 21, there’s a very good chance that he won’t commit that same crime when he gets out at 41.

Other countries show this can work. European nations tend to have shorter prison sentences than the US, and certainly fewer people in prison, along with roughly equal or lower violent crime rates.  Norway in particular caps the great majority of prison sentences at 21 years — and its violent crime and reoffending rates are lower than the US’s.  (The cap does have some exceptions, as I’ll explain later.)

A cap on prison sentences wouldn’t on its own end mass incarceration.  But at least tens of thousands of people in prison would benefit now — if the change were applied retroactively — and untold numbers more would benefit in the future if it were adopted by states and the federal government.

I’m not naive; I know there’s a very, very low chance that this policy will actually be enacted. And I know there are some difficult questions we need to confront if such a policy were ever put in place.  But I think pushing for something like this is a good idea anyway.  It forces a conversation about what prisons are for: Are they for keeping the public safe? Rehabilitating inmates?  Purely for revenge?  If our answer as a society is the first two, but not the latter, then a cap is something we should consider.

By beginning these kinds of conversations, we can try to get at the root cultural and social forces that enabled and encouraged mass incarceration to begin with.  Only by doing that can we start to really unravel a criminal justice system that’s turned into one of the world’s most punitive.

February 12, 2019 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Student SCOTUS preview part two: noticing the parole push in United States v. Haymond

6a00d83451574769e2022ad3c272a1200b-320wiI noted here back in 2017 an interesting opinion in US v. Haymond where a Tenth Circuit panel declared unconstitutional the procedures used for revocation of a sex offender's supervised release.  The Supreme Court also obviously found the case interesting because, as reported here, the Justices in 2018 accepted the petition for certiorari filed by the federal government.  Oral argument is scheduled for two weeks from now, and a SCOTUSblog page on Haymond has links to all the briefing.

As reported in this prior post, I have a great student, Jim McGibbon, who is now in the midst of drafting a series of preview posts on the \Haymond case.  Following up on this introductory post, here is his second post inspired by the briefing in the case:

In 2010, Andre Haymond was convicted of possessing child pornography and sentenced to thirty-eight months of prison and ten years of supervised release.  In 2015, two years into his supervised release, Haymond's probation officers conducted a surprise search of his apartment and seized a password-protected cellphone.  Finding images of child pornography on the phone, the probation officers alleged Haymond violated his terms of supervised release.  The district court found by a preponderance of the evidence that Haymond had violated 18 U.S.C. § 2252 by possessing child pornography.  Based on this finding, the court revoked Haymond's supervised release and sentenced him to a mandatory five years in prison pursuant to § 3583(k) and an additional five years of supervised release.  On appeal, the Tenth Circuit held that § 3583(k) was unconstitutional in part because it unlawfully imposes heightened punishment using a preponderance of the evidence standard based on new conduct which contradicts the requirements of Apprendi and Alleyne.  And though parole was abolished in the federal system 35 years ago, its history and procedures lurk as this case now comes before the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court in Morrissey v. Brewer stated that "revocation of parole is not part of a criminal prosecution and thus the full panoply of rights due a defendant in such a proceeding does not apply to parole revocation." Morrisey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471, 480 (1972).  Commenting on the nature of revocation, the Supreme Court theorized that "[r]evocation deprives an individual, not of the absolute liberty to which every citizen is entitled, but only of the conditional liberty properly dependent on observance of special parole restrictions.” Id.  Regarding the right to due process, the Court held that "[w]hether any procedural protections are due depends on the extent to which an individual will be 'condemned to suffer grievous loss.'" Id. at 481.

Morrissey is still good law, as is Gagnon v. Scarpelli, 411 U.S. 778 (1973), which ruled similarly with respect to constitutionally required procedures for revoking probation.  Predictably then, the government briefing in US v. Haymond relies heavily on these cases, as Morrissey is mentioned 21 times and Gagnon is mentioned 14 times in its main brief. Concomitantly, the government’s brief cites to "parole" a whopping 60 times in hopes that the current Court finds that a person on supervised release is afforded only the same procedural protections as a parolee or a probationer as the Burger Court found in Morrissey and Gagnon.  As the government would have it, Morrissey and Gagnon control because Andre Haymond while on supervised release has "only "conditional liberty" and "individuals in respondent’s position are differently situated from those who can claim the full extent of the constitutional protections against a deprivation of their absolute liberty."  Brief of US at 38.  In contrast, Haymond's brief contains only five references to Morrissey.  He argues, unsurprisingly, Morrissey does not apply. 

There are reasons to believe the Court will not automatically find that the procedural protections due a person on supervised release are in lock step with the procedural protection due a person on parole.  Morrissey can be distinguished due to differences between the realities of traditional parole release and parole revocation and the realities of federal supervised release and its revocation.  As Haymond's brief stresses, in this case Congress through section 3583(k) required a new five-year mandatory prison sentence upon a particular finding as the basis for supervised release revocation.  Traditional parole processes included considerable discretion, and "parole revocation penalties could not exceed reimprisonment for the remainder of the original sentence."  Brief for Respondent at 26.  Moreover, continues Haymond, supervised release is not a form of "conditional liberty” because any “defendant who began a term of supervised release completed his term of imprisonment and there was no pending term that he could resume serving (as in the case of parole) or being serving (as in the case of probation)." Brief for Respondent at 27-28.

This case could be decided on whether the discretionary parole system of the past and the mandatory supervised release system of the present are similar enough to apply Morrissey v. Brewer in Haymond's case.  However, if the Court extends Morrissey v. Brewer to be applicable to the revocation of supervised release, then Haymond was not due "the full panoply of rights" and the application of § 3583(k) is probably constitutional — although the Court could still then find that the § 3583(k)'s distinctive mandatory five-year prison sentence is a "grievous loss" for a defendant that justifies greater procedural protections under the Due Process Clause of Fifth Amendment.  Or, if the Court declines to extend Morrissey v. Brewer to the revocation of supervised release, then perhaps the Court will look to the Sixth Amendment to find that jury trial rights are implicated and applicable under the Apprendi and Blakely and Alleyne line of cases.

This case is of interest not only because of its substantive issues, but also because it will present the first major opportunity for new Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh to weigh in on Apprendi and its progeny.  Justice Gorsuch replaced an Apprendi progenitor in Justice Scalia, while Justice Kavanaugh replaced an Apprendi objector in Justice Kennedy.  The next post will explore what they and other Justices might have to say in this case.

Prior related posts:

February 12, 2019 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán found guilty on all 10 federal counts now facing LWOP sentence ... but surely could still provide substantial assistance

As reported in this NPR piece, headlined "'El Chapo,' Notorious Drug Kingpin, Found Guilty After Dramatic Trial In New York," the federal government secured high-profile drug convictions today in New York.  Here are some details:

After a long trial held under heightened security at the Brooklyn, N.Y., federal court, a jury has found Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, one of the world's most notorious drug kingpins who led Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, guilty on all ten counts related to drug trafficking. He 61-year-old faces the possibility of life in prison.

Tuesday's verdict ended a dramatic trial that started in November and was filled with explosive testimony from Guzmán's former cartel associates. It included testimony from more than 50 witnesses, many of whom described Guzmán's use of violence against his enemies.

Guzmán faced 10 charges in the indictment, including engaging in a criminal enterprise — which in itself comprised 27 violations, including conspiracy to commit murder. Other charges included using firearms and manufacturing and distributing cocaine, heroin and other drugs.

Last week, Judge Brian Cogan gave jurors about three hours of instructions for their deliberations. He said he was confident that they had followed his instructions not to read or watch news about the case. The entire jury has been anonymous for their protection. At one point, the judge told the foreperson to sign notes using her name but then corrected that instruction and told her to use her juror number instead to keep her identity secret.

The jurors — four men and eight women — deliberated for days, asking for lengthy testimonies and whether ephedrine was considered methamphetamine.

In laying out their case, prosecutors spent 11 weeks calling witnesses, while the defense took 30 minutes and brought just one witness to the stand. The prosecution and defense delivered their final arguments to the jury in January.

Jeffrey Lichtman, one of Guzmán's defense lawyers, gave an animated presentation, banging the podium, pacing before the jurors and patting his client on the shoulder.... The prosecution had produced a "scripted event," he said, with cooperating witnesses who "lie, steal, cheat, deal drugs and kill people." And if Guzmán was convicted, all of those people would be released, he said.

Lichtman cast doubt on whether some of the murders that witnesses described ever happened. He called Guzmán "the rabbit" that Mexican authorities were chasing when the true mastermind behind the Sinaloa cartel was Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada....

Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Liskamm led the prosecution's rebuttal, urging jurors not to fall for the defense's smear. "The day cocaine conspiracies are made in heaven is the day we can call angels as witnesses," she said....

Prosecution witnesses offered testimony that swung from the bizarre to the shocking. According to testimony, he had a diamond-encrusted pistol and a gold-plated AK-47; he kicked off a cartel war after a rival refused to shake his hand; he and a mistress once fled naked through a secret tunnel under a bath tub; he escaped from a Mexican prison with the help of his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro; and, in one of the most controversial allegations, he bought off Enrique Peña Nieto for $100 million — a claim the former Mexican president has denied....

Guzmán's 29-year-old wife attended the trial nearly every day, even as a mistress testified. She told The New York Times, "I don't know my husband as the person they are trying to show him as." The weeks also brought details of the sophisticated methods that the cartel used to move its contraband, from secret landing strips to container ships and submarines. People who stood in the way were allegedly bribed, kidnapped, tortured or killed....

Guzmán already had humiliated Mexico by escaping from prison twice. Once he made a getaway in a laundry cart. And then there was the mile-long tunnel that began under his maximum security prison cell's shower, a passageway that he told Penn had required sending engineers to Germany for training.

The cartel reportedly built some 90 tunnels between Mexico and the United States. After a long manhunt, he was recaptured in 2016 by Mexican authorities on the outskirts of Los Mochis and extradited to the United States the next year. He arrived on U.S. soil and pleaded not guilty to U.S. federal charges.

Guzmán showed in Mexico that he can devise ways to escape from prison, but I am hopeful US authorities will not have similar prison administration difficulties.  But, as the title of this post is meant to suggest, there is another way Guzmán could now try to work his way out of federal prison, namely by providing substantial assistance in the prosecution of others.

Ultimately, I am not sure Guzmán will be eager even at this point to cooperate with the feds, and I would be quite surprised if the feds would be willing to offer any significant sentencing discount for his cooperation.  But here it seems worth flagging the reality that, in a federal sentencing system that rewards defendants who cooperate, the greatest potential sentencing rewards can go to the most guilty of defendants who have the most potential information to offer.  Guzmán, who I believe is now facing a mandatory life sentence, would seem to be the poster child of the most guilty of defendants with the most potential information to offer.

February 12, 2019 in Celebrity sentencings, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (4)

A year after tragedy, taking stock of the agony (and wondering about the costs) already surrounding the capital prosecution of Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz

CNN has this notable new article headlined "This is where Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz's death penalty case stands a year later," and here are excerpts:

A year after Nikolas Cruz massacred 17 people and injured 17 others at his former high school in Florida, the question is not whether he's guilty -- he's confessed on video.  It's does he live or die?  His defense team has offered a guilty plea in exchange for life in prison without the possibility of parole -- but only if prosecutors take the death penalty off the table. Prosecutors have rejected the plea, meaning a lengthy trial is all but inevitable.

If the case goes to trial, Cruz will join a short list of mass shooters who've faced their victims in court.  Of the 10 deadliest shootings in recent US history, Cruz is the only one who was captured alive.

The case is on what's described as the "pretrial discovery" stage, says Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office is representing Cruz.  He says the case is a long way from trial. In this stage, Cruz's attorneys have been deposing dozens of witnesses to give oral statements under oath.

Such sessions happen behind closed doors and are only attended by attorneys, the court reporter and the victims' advocate, says Richard Hornsby, a criminal defense lawyer in Florida who is not involved in the case.  Depositions are conducted in person by prosecutors and defense attorneys, and the defendant is not allowed to be present, he adds.

"It is common for victims/accusers to be deposed. However, from a strategic standpoint, I could not imagine the defense attorneys deposing the survivors in this case without a good reason," Hornsby says.  The Broward County Clerk of Court's website lists deposition notices for mostly law enforcement witnesses.

It's the beginning of a long, arduous process.  A death penalty case can take years to go to trial.... The process involves painstakingly combing through graphic details of the shooting in court. No detail is too small, including the gunshots, autopsies and the killer's words.  "However, with the judge pushing the case hard and the passage of Marsy's Law last fall, I would not be surprised if this case makes it to trial early next fall," Hornsby says.  Marsy's Law expanded the rights of victims of crimes, including giving them the right to have a voice in prosecution issues.

Broward state prosecutors have not revealed much in recent months.  But in the past, they've rejected the defense's offer of a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence, paving the way for a lengthy trial. While the prosecution did not respond to CNN's request for comments for this article, Michael Satz, Broward County's prosecutor, has previously said this is "certainly the type of case the death penalty was designed for."  Assistant State Attorney Shari Tate has said Florida will not allow Cruz to "choose his own punishment for the murder of 17 people."

Cruz's defense team has made it clear it's not looking forward to a death penalty trial. That's why Finkelstein is offering his client's guilty plea in exchange for 34 life sentences without parole.  That would take the death penalty trial off the table and spare the victims from reliving the nightmare during testimony, he says.

That would end the extensive legal process he says could last decades if there's an appeal. In some cases, death penalty trials are followed by lengthy appeals in which survivors return to court to face the killer all over again.  "A plea to 34 consecutive life sentences ends not only the above immediately but means no appeals," Finkelstein says. "We still stand ready to plead guilty to 34 consecutive life sentences."

Some Marjory Stoneman Douglas students are conflicted on the possibility of a death penalty trial.  Student leader Emma Gonzalez describes Cruz's potential death penalty trial as a "good" thing.  Another student, Cameron Kasky, has said he wants him to "rot forever" in prison instead.

Andrew Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow, was one of the people killed, has said he does not plan to attend any death trial hearings. "I don't want to go through some lengthy trial that's going to be brutal. I want him to sit in a cell and rot for the rest of his life," Pollack says.

In high-profile cases such as the Parkland shooting, there are no shortages of challenges for everyone involved.  Even finding a jury will be an ordeal, Hornsby says.... "You will have to find people who say they could be fair and impartial to the defendant given what they know about the Parkland murders," he says. "Good luck."

Florida's death penalty law requires the jury's decision to be unanimous. If one of the 12 jurors dissents, the defendant must be sentenced to life without parole.

There are so many interesting and sad elements to this story. For starters, the possibility of the death penalty has, in one sense, already done a lot of work in this case, as it is surely driving the defense to offer to plead guilty to 34 consecutive life sentences.  But because prosecutors, likely influenced in part by the wishes of some victims, are eager to secure a death sentence, there will be lots and lots of process (and expense) in the months and years ahead.  I hope that the victims of the shooting and victims' families can find some comfort in the long capital trial process, but even if they do they also have to be prepared for years (likely decades) of an appeals process.  (Recall, as noted in this recent post, that we are approaching the six-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing and the capital case still is not close to being fully briefed in the First Circuit.)  

With a focus on the victims, I find it especially interesting that activist Emma Gonzalez is apparently supportive of the decision to pursue capital charges against Cruz.  My general perception is that many progressives and many young people tend to be strong opponents of the death penalty, and so I would be inclined to guess that most of the Parkland students will be disinclined to support efforts to send Cruz to death row.  But, as is often the case, victims are a diverse and sometimes unpredictable bunch.  And with Marsy's Law newly on the books in Florida, their roles will be one to watch closely in the months and years ahead as well.

Finally, at the risk of seeming crass, I hope someone is keeping track of what this prosecution is costing the taxpayers of the state of Florida.  As regular readers know, I think the extraordinary expense of many capital cases can often serves as one of the strongest arguments against the death penalty as it rarely seems the penalty's (debatable) benefits measure up to its (reasonably clear) economic costs.   

Prior related posts:

February 12, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 11, 2019

Acting AG Whitaker makes the case that "law enforcement works"

Today in Washington, DC, Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker delivered these remarks to the National Sheriffs’ Association’s Winter Conference. The structure and specifics of what he had to say is quite similar to the message delivered by former AG Jeff Sessions in similar settings in years past, and here are notable excerpts speaking to federal enforcement efforts:

In the last fiscal year, the Justice Department charged the greatest number of violent crime defendants since we started to track this category more than 25 years ago.  We broke the previous record by nearly 15 percent.  We also charged more than 15,000 defendants with federal firearms offenses, which is a record. We broke that record by a margin of 17 percent.

Last year we charged more illegal aliens with illegal entry than ever before.  In fact, we charged 85 percent more defendants with illegally entering America than we did in the previous year. And we increased the number of felony re-entry prosecutions by more than 38 percent.

All of these efforts that I’ve mentioned are adding up — and they’re bringing down the crime rate in counties all across America. In September, the FBI released final crime statistics for 2017. They showed that the violent crime rate and the homicide rate both went down after two years of increases under the previous administration.

For 2018, one estimate projects that the murder rate in our 30 largest cities declined by 7.6 percent.  That is usually a good indicator of what is happening nationwide.

And as this crowd knows well: when you lock up gang members and violent criminals, you also have an impact on drug crime.  In fiscal year 2018, the Department of Justice charged six percent more drug defendants than in the year before.  We prosecuted 36 percent more opioid defendants than the previous four-year average. We increased heroin prosecutions by 15 percent and oxycontin prosecutions by 35 percent.  We have broken records for fentanyl prosecutions two years in a row.

More importantly, drug overdose deaths may have finally stopped rising. According to preliminary data from the CDC, fatal overdoses stopped rising in September 2017 — and then decreased by two percent through April 2018.

This is preliminary data, but it is still encouraging. As our efforts have shown over these last two years, law enforcement works.

I am very pleased that there is a projected significant decline in the murder rate and also that overdose deaths may be decreasing. I am not sure it is sound to attribute these positive developments to stepped up federal prosecutions, but I am sure that we should all celebrate the very fact that there are good crime and overdose data to "spin" in various possible ways.

February 11, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Making sure we do not lose sight of the "American epidemic of overly long prison sentences"

Late last week, Judge Morris Hoffman penned this notable Wall Street Journal essay headlined "A Judge on the Injustice of America’s Extreme Prison Sentences: The duty to punish criminals comes with an obligation not to punish them more than they deserve." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Many people have celebrated Congress’s recent passage of the First Step Act, which, among other things, retroactively reduced penalties for some federal drug offenses.  But it did very little to address the American epidemic of overly long prison sentences.  Today, we lead the Western world in average length of prison sentences, at 63 months. According to the Justice Policy Institute, Canada’s average is four months, Finland’s 10, Germany’s 12 and even rugged, individualistic Australia’s is just 36.

These numbers are even more striking considering that the modern prison is an American invention and the average sentence started out at a few months, not years.  The Quakers invented prisons in the late 1700s as a more humane alternative to death or banishment, then the punishments for virtually all serious crimes.  But the penitentiary wasn’t intended to be a criminal warehouse.  Criminals were expected to work, pray and think about their crimes — to be penitent about them — in a kind of moral rehabilitation.

Virtually every new American state that adopted this form of punishment soon passed laws requiring confinement to include hard labor, but for short durations.  A 1785 New York statute was typical: It limited all nonhomicide prison sentences to six months.  Alexis de Tocqueville, whose visits to America began with a tour of U.S. prisons in 1831, wrote, “In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States.”  But over the next 150 years, America went from mildest punisher to harshest.  The reasons for this shift are complicated, but they include a dash of progressive naiveté, a bit of blind faith in the power of deterrence and large dollops of political neglect.....

[T]the relationship between longer sentences and falling crime rates is complex and nonlinear.  At some point, crime rates become unresponsive to increased punishment. If we sentenced aggravated robbers to 70 years, then increased that to 80, not even the most committed believer in deterrence would expect those additional 10 years to further reduce robberies.  The enormous leverage of prosecutors in plea bargaining is undoubtedly a factor in the explosion of sentence lengths.  But the real problem is the sentence ranges created by legislatures, not the particular sentences within those ranges imposed by judges or driven by plea bargains.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those apologists who thinks that criminal law is fundamentally immoral or that a bad environment excuses bad actions. I am what we in the business call a “retributivist.” I don’t punish people primarily to cure them or to deter others. I punish them mainly because those who intentionally harm others deserve to be punished, in no small part to earn their way back into the social fold.

But if retribution offers a moral justification for punishment, it also imposes limits. W e have a duty to punish wrongdoers, but that duty comes with the obligation not to punish criminals more than they deserve. Much of our criminal-justice system has lost that moral grounding, and our use of prisons has become extreme.  We dishonor victims of crimes that merit severe punishment when we sentence less serious crimes just as harshly.  What do I tell the surviving relatives of a victim of second-degree murder when they see her killer sentenced to less time than someone who robbed a crowded restaurant?...

It won’t be easy. No one gets elected by calling for shorter prison sentences.  Critics will warn that releasing prisoners earlier is unsafe, and in some cases it would be.  But as a policy matter, there is simply no evidence that, say, a 70-year sentence for aggravated robbery does more than a 30-year one to deter other potential robbers.  Moreover, violent crime rates decrease rapidly as criminals age out of their 20s.  Releasing a middle-aged prisoner earlier does pose more risk, of course, than keeping him behind bars, but that marginal danger will be very small indeed when we are comparing 30- and 70-year sentences....

As state and federal legislators ponder their next moves after the First Step Act, they should consider lowering historically extreme sentences for some offenses, including violent ones.  It would not only be sensible public policy but would also help return our criminal law to its moral roots.

February 11, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

"State of Phone Justice: Local jails, state prisons and private phone providers"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Prison Policy Initiative report authored by Peter Wagner and Alexi Jones.  Here is how the report gets started:

At a time when the cost of a typical phone call is approaching zero, people behind bars in the U.S. are often forced to pay astronomical rates to call their loved ones or lawyers. Why?  Because phone companies bait prisons and jails into charging high phone rates in exchange for a share of the revenue.

The good news is that, in the last decade, we’ve made this industry considerably fairer:

  • The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) capped the cost of out-of-state phone calls from both prisons and jails at about 21 cents a minute;
  • The FCC capped many of the abusive fees that providers used to extract extra profits from consumers; and
  • Most state prison systems lowered their rates even further and also lowered rates for in-state calls.

However, the vast majority of our progress has been in state-run prisons.  In county- and city-run jails — where predatory contracts get little attention — instate phone calls can still cost $1 per minute, or more.  Moreover, phone providers continue to extract additional profits by charging consumers hidden fees and are taking aggressive steps to limit competition in the industry.

These high rates and fees can be disastrous for people incarcerated in local jails.  Local jails are very different from state prisons: On a given day, 3 out of 4 people held in jails under local authority have not even been convicted, much less sentenced. The vast majority are being held pretrial, and many will remain behind bars unless they can make bail. Charging pretrial defendants high prices for phone calls punishes people who are legally innocent, drives up costs for their appointed counsel, and makes it harder for them to contact family members and others who might help them post bail or build their defense. It also puts them at risk of losing their jobs, housing, and custody of their children while they are in jail awaiting trial.

February 11, 2019 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Doesn't the FIRST STEP Act add juice to Eighth Amendment challenge to extreme stacked 924(c) sentence in Rivera-Ruperto?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the interesting intersection of an important sentencing reform in the new FIRST STEP Act and an important Eighth Amendment case that I have had my eye on for some time  finally getting before the Supreme Court.  Let me explain, starting with the FIRST STEP provision.

For those particularly concerned about extreme mandatory minimum sentences, Section 403 of the FIRST STEP Act is a heartening overdue change to federal sentencing law.  This provision, described as a "clarification of Section 924(c)," now eliminates the required "stacking" of 25-year mandatory minimums for using a firearm during other crimes for those offenders without a prior record convicted of multiple 924(c) counts at the same time.  In other words, the extreme 25-year recidivism enhancement of 924(c) is now to apply only to actual recidivists.

The prior requirement of "stacking" 924(c) counts led to Weldon Angelos' extreme 55-year mandatory-minimum sentence for selling marijuana with his personal guns nearby (which is discussed at length here by Paul Cassell, the judge forced to impose the sentence).  US Sentencing Commission data here and here shows that well over 100 offenders each year have been subject to convictions for multiple 924(c) counts.  Just a few of many extreme 924(c) stacked sentences are noted in prior posts here and here and here and here.  Sadly, Congress did not make Section 403 of the FIRST STEP Act retroactive, and thus defendants previously subject to these extreme stacked sentences will get no direct relief from the new Act.

But there is one particular defendant with a particularly extreme stacked 924(c) sentence that I am hoping might get some indirect benefit from the new law in his on-going Eighth Amendment litigation.  Wendell Rivera–Ruperto, who was paid in 2010 by undercover FBI informants to serve as "armed security" at six faux drug deals, received a federal sentence of nearly 162 years, of which 130 years were for his six stacked convictions under 924(c).  As discussed here a year ago, in a terrific First Circuit opinion denying rehearing en banc in United States v. Rivera-Ruperto, No. 12-2364 (1st Cir. Feb 27, 2018) (available here), Judge David Barron lamented how judges "have no choice but to approve mandatory 'forever' sentences ... so long as they can hypothesize a rational reason for the legislature to have thought that the underlying criminal conduct was as serious as the large quantity drug possession at issue in Harmelin."  In so doing, Judge Barron highlights many questionable elements of the Harmelin ruling and, writing on behalf of the entire First Circuit, suggests SCOTUS take up Rivera–Ruperto to reconsider the "three-decades old, three-Justice concurrence in Harmelin."

As of a few days ago, as revealed in this SCOTUS docket sheet, all the cert papers have been finally filled in Rivera–Ruperto, and the Justices will consider the case at their February 22 conference.  Notably, and not surprisingly, the feds now say in opposition to cert that passage of the FIRST STEP Act reduces the important of the case: "future defendants in petitioner's position will not be subject to mandatory consecutive sentences of at least 25 years [and the] question presented by his case therefore has diminishing significance."  But, as the title of this post is meant to suggest, the fact that the Eighth Amendment is supposed to take guidance from an "evolving standards of decency" and be responsive to a "national consensus" against a sentence, I strongly believe the enactment of the FIRST STEP Act primarily operates to make Wendell Rivera–Ruperto's constitutional claim even more substantively potent. 

As I explained here, I see Justice Anthony Kennedy's departure as creating a new window of opportunity for advocates to urge overturning (or cutting back) the terrible Eighth Amendment precedent that is Harmelin.  Thus, I am rooting super hard for the Justices to grant cert in Rivera–Ruperto.   I am fearful the Court will remain fearful of taking on these issues and thus leave the (now-even-stronger) Eighth Amendment claim in this case to be considered anew through an inevitable 2255 motion.  Still, my fingers are crossed to support the cert chances of potentially the biggest non-capital Eighth Amendment case in a generation.

A few prior related posts:

February 10, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Gun policy and sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)