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November 8, 2019

Spotlighting again how the Justice Department is resisting broad applicability of certain FIRST STEP Act provisions

In this post from July, I noted this Reuters article on some of the court skirmishes over the crack sentencing retroactivity provisions of the FIRST STEP Act.  That piece carried this headline: "As new U.S. law frees inmates, prosecutors seek to lock some back up."  Now the Washington Post has this lengthy piece in a similar vein under this headline: "Trump boasts that his landmark law is freeing these inmates. His Justice Department wants them to stay in prison." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

The gathering in April was a triumphant celebration of the First Step Act, the most sweeping overhaul of the federal criminal justice system in a generation. Since its passage nearly a year ago, the law has led to the release of more than 3,000 inmates — including [Gregory] Allen, who was convicted of cocaine trafficking in 2001.

The Justice Department, though, had never wanted to let Allen out of prison. In fact, even as he and Trump shared a joyous embrace on television, federal prosecutors were trying to persuade a judge to put Allen back behind bars.

The president has repeatedly pointed to the First Step Act as one of his administration’s chief bipartisan achievements and one for which he is personally responsible. But cases like Allen’s expose a striking rift between the White House allies who supported the law and the Justice Department officials now working to limit the number of inmates who might benefit from it.

“DOJ is pushing against the will of the people, the will of Congress, the will of the president,” said Holly Harris, a conservative activist and leader of the Justice Action Network who worked with Congress and the White House to pass the law. Harris noted that, before the law’s passage, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a vocal critic of reducing prison sentences. His successor, William P. Barr, expressed similar reservations before his appointment.

The First Step Act aims to lessen long-standing disparities in punishment for nonviolent drug offenses involving crack cocaine. Having five grams of crack, a form of cocaine that is more common among black drug users, used to carry the same mandatory minimum sentence as having 500 grams of powder cocaine, which is more common among white drug users.

But federal prosecutors are arguing in hundreds of cases that inmates who have applied for this type of relief are ineligible, according to a review of court records and interviews with defense attorneys. In at least half a dozen cases, prosecutors are seeking to reincarcerate offenders who have been released under the First Step Act.

The department has told federal prosecutors that when determining whether to challenge an application for early release, they should consider not the amount of crack an inmate was convicted of having or trafficking — but rather the amount that court records suggest they may have actually had, which is often much larger.

A Justice spokesman, Wyn Hornbuckle, defended that interpretation, though he declined to discuss the department’s guidance to prosecutors or to say when it was disseminated. He did not respond to questions about the split between the department and the White House allies who pushed for the law. Hornbuckle said that in years past, prosecutors could secure lengthy prison sentences without having to prove an offender had large amounts of drugs. Under today’s laws, he said, those same offenders would probably be charged with crimes involving larger quantities. “The government’s position is that the text of the statute requires courts to look at the quantity of crack that was part of the actual crime,” Hornbuckle said. “This is a fairness issue.”

In the vast majority of cases reviewed by The Washington Post, judges have disagreed with the Justice Department’s interpretation. Some of the people involved in writing the legislation also disagree, including Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney in Utah. He and other supporters of the law note that the text of the legislation does not explicitly instruct courts to consider the actual amount of crack an offender allegedly had. “This is not a faithful implementation of this part of the First Step Act,” said Tolman, who was appointed by President George W. Bush. “At some point, they figured out a way to come back and argue that it wouldn’t apply to as many people.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, accused the Justice Department at a congressional hearing last month of “trying to sabotage” the law by interpreting it in this way. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a key Republican sponsor of the law, declined to comment on the department’s stance on inmate eligibility but told The Post he had concerns about how other aspects of the law are being implemented. “It would be a shame if the people working under the President failed to implement the bill as written,” Lee said in a recent statement to The Post....

“The people that did the deal, including President Trump, wanted to help guys like me,” said Allen, 49, whose case was mentioned in a Reuters story in July about efforts by some prosecutors to clamp down on First Step Act relief. “But on the flip side, you have federal prosecutors who wake up every day trying to keep guys like me locked up.”...

The First Step Act was championed by a bipartisan coalition that spanned the political spectrum, from the conservative megadonor Koch brothers toracial-justice activist Van Jones. The legislation forbids federal jailers from shackling pregnant inmates and grants judges new powers to free sick and elderly prisoners. One of the most consequential parts of the law was the provision allowing federal inmates such as Allen to apply for early release. The mandatory sentencing policies those offenders faced are among the factors that have led the United States to incarcerate more people than any other nation, experts say....

Trump has made criminal justice reform a chief talking point in recent months, and several of his advisers — including Kushner — believe it could play an important role in his reelection bid, said Doug Deason, a prominent donor to the Trump campaign. A senior campaign official added that the Trump campaign plans to tout the First Step Act in the hopes of attracting black voters in key states such as North Carolina and Florida.

The legislation has earned Trump goodwill from unlikely corners, something he craves amid an impeachment inquiry. Last week, he beamed onstage in Columbia, S.C., as he was presented with an award from a bipartisan advocacy group of black elected officials. “I told him, ‘You ought to go and get that award,’” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview. “There ain’t many people giving you an award these days.”

Backstage, Trump talked up the idea of another such law, asking Steve Benjamin, the city’s mayor, whether he should call it the Second Step Act, the mayor recalled. Yet even as Trump toasts himself for the legislative victory, defense attorneys and advocates are frustrated that the White House is not doing more to ensure that the law is implemented as intended.

“The irony of this administration working against itself is mind-boggling,” said Brittany Barnett, a defense attorney who has worked on several of the First Step Act cases championed by Kardashian. “Especially with lives on the line.”

In the weeks after the bill became law, many federal prosecutors allowed inmate petitions for early release to go unchallenged. Then, at the direction of officials in Washington, prosecutors began to reverse course, court records show. In March, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Bockhorst asked federal judges in West Virginia to place a hold on more than two dozen applications for relief — some of which she had not previously opposed. She wrote that she expected to oppose at least some of those applications based on new guidance from the Justice Department.

In a brief phone interview, Bockhorst said the government shutdown that began soon after the bill passed and lasted until late January delayed the guidance from Washington. “We didn’t have the benefit of any kind of coordinated position,” she said. Similar reversals took place in New York, where prosecutors agreed in April that certain inmates were eligible — only to change their position in May. In one case, a judge found the reversal striking enough to ask what prompted it.

Prior related post:

November 8, 2019 at 09:43 AM | Permalink

Comments

I find it disgusting that the new DOJ Guidance to U.S. Attorneys about whether they should oppose Petitions for Sentencing Relief under the Fist Step Act depends on their assessment of how much crack cocaine the defendant/inmate "may have been involved with", rather than the amount proven at trial or the amount set forth in his PSR. In the Cotton decision (if memory serves me correctly), the U.S. Supreme Court held that "drug quantity" is an element of the offense sought to be charged that must be pleaded in the indictment and proven at trial beyond a reasonable doubt. Although sentences are still enhanced by Judges finding "acquitted conduct drug quantity" by a preponderance of the evidence, it appears to me that the DOJ Guidance violates the inmate/defendant's Constitutional rights and should not be occurring. Someone needs to put a stop to that practice.

Posted by: James Gormley | Nov 8, 2019 10:48:30 AM

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