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October 19, 2019

You be the judge: what sentence for driver convicted of reckless homicides for accidentally killing children boarding school bus?

A helpful reader altered me to a heart-breaking story from Indiana which serves as an opportunity to considering what seems a fitting sentence for a crime with a horrible result but a result that was plainly not intended by the wrong-doer. Here are some details from this local article:

Nearly a year after Alyssa Shepherd drove past a stopped school bus, killing three siblings as they crossed a two-lane highway to board the bus, a Fulton County jury convicted her of reckless homicide in the children's deaths.  Shepherd, prosecutors say, was driving a pickup truck that struck and killed twins Xzavier and Mason Ingle, both 6, and their sister Alivia Stahl, 9, and also critically injured Maverik Lowe, 11, as they crossed the highway north of Rochester on Oct. 30.  Lowe, who's still recovering from his injuries, has had more than 20 surgeries since the crash.

Shepherd was found guilty Friday of three felony counts of reckless homicide.  The jury also found her guilty of a felony count of criminal recklessness and a misdemeanor count of passing a school bus causing injury when the arm is extended. She faces up to 21 years if given the maximum amount on each count.

The parents of Mason and Xzavier, Shane and Brittany Ingle, and Michael Stahl, Brittany's ex-husband and Alivia's dad, told reporters after the verdict that they were relieved, and have no sympathy for Shepherd, who they believe has shown no remorse for the crash.  "I don't think we'll ever feel closure," Brittany Ingle said. "But this will go toward healing."...

Earlier Friday, Shepherd took the stand in Fulton Superior Court. Family members of Shepherd and the victims, had filled the Fulton County courthouse this week to hear testimony from witnesses and law enforcement.  When asked by her attorney when it started to sink in that she’d hit and killed three children after driving past a school bus, Shepherd described emotions ranging from disbelief to hysteria.  But at first it was confusion, according to her testimony. She remembered seeing blinking lights and something that appeared to be a large vehicle.  But she didn't see a bus, Shepherd says, nor did she see the red sign telling her to stop.

When she'd realized what she'd done, Shepherd says she was hysterical.  "The only way I can describe it is an out-of-body experience," Shepherd said, according to the account provided to IndyStar by the small number of reporters who were allowed into the packed courtroom, "I was a mess."

The four children were crossing the highway to board their school bus about 7:15 a.m. when prosecutors say Shepherd blew by a stopped school bus.  The road was dark but prosecutors said the bus lights and stop arm were clearly visible.  Whether Shepherd was behind the wheel that morning was not being disputed, according to statements made from the defense and prosecution during the trial.  Jurors instead decided whether Shepherd’s actions were reckless or simply accidental....

Shepherd was driving with three children in the back seat of her Toyota Tacoma before the crash happened, according to court documents.  She had just dropped off her husband at work at about 7:05 a.m. and was heading to her mother's home in the Rochester area to drop off her little brother when she rounded a bend on Indiana 25.  She'd taken that road many times before, her attorney Michael Tuszynski said, but rarely at that time of day.

As she was driving, the 24-year-old Shepherd saw something in the distance, but couldn't quite make it out, according to Tuszynski, who said that a freightliner was behind the bus, making it appear to Shepherd as one large vehicle.  "The circumstances of the bus, with the freightliner behind it, combined to create the profile of one vehicle, making it seem like it's a semi that's moving. And she's confused about what she sees," he said.

But after the crash, the driver of another vehicle that was following Shepherd's Toyota through the bend on Indiana 25 said the school bus lights and stop arm were clearly visible even though the road was dark.  This is according to testimony from Indiana State Police detective Michelle Jumper during a probable cause hearing held hours after the crash.

The witness said she and Shepherd were traveling at 45 mph, Jumper testified.  The witness said she slowed when she saw the school bus and its blinking lights. Shepherd didn't. "Suddenly she sees the children," Tuszynski said Friday. "She brakes. But it was too late."  Shepherd's friend, Brittany Thompson, who spoke to Shepherd on the phone after the crash, testified that Shepherd said she'd seen the lights and was trying to negotiate how far to move over. Thompson said Shepherd was distraught. "I didn't know it was a bus," Shepherd reportedly said.

The victims' family told reporters that Shepherd appeared cold during the trial, and seemed unconcerned with the deaths that resulted from her actions. "When I was giving my testimony," Brittany Ingle said, "I looked her straight in the eyes and she gave nothing. She had no remorse."

Tuszynski said there was no evidence of drugs or alcohol in Shepherd's system at the time of the crash.  He placed blame on the location of the bus stop, which required the children to cross the highway to board the bus.  "The idea that it was OK to make those kids cross that busy road to get on a bus, rather than move the stop into the (trailer) park, is absurd," Tuszynski said.

The Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation announced shortly after the crash that it would relocate the bus stop into the trailer park where the students lived. Superintendent Blaine Conley testified Friday that the park had previously been considered for the location.  But officials were worried that the school bus could hit children in the area due to poor lighting.  The crash led to statewide changes, prompting the Legislature to increase penalties for drivers who illegally pass stopped school buses.  Shane and Brittany Ingle spent several days at the Statehouse this past year lobbying for the changes.

Via a google search, I found in this change.org petition titled "Alyssa Shepard should receive a life sentence for hitting 4 children, killing 3 of them." But it seems applicable Indiana law caps her possible sentence at 21 years.  And I would be eager to hear from readers if they think anything close to a maxed out prison sentence is appropriate in a case involving an (awful) accident. Is any prison sentence fitting?  How much should it matter that the family of the slain children seem eager for a severe term?  You be the judge.

October 19, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (12)

October 18, 2019

"The Trouble with Reentry: Five Takeaways from Working with People Returning to Chicago from Prison"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the John Howard Association. Here is part of its executive summary: nbsp;

With political backing and public will, a new reentry system can and should be built.  A foundation is currently being laid through public-private partnerships that recognize the importance of meeting the basic needs of people leaving the justice system and going back to their communities. But for such a system to succeed, it ultimately must be grounded in the principle that“[t]he dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement.”

Over the last several months, John Howard Association of Illinois (JHA) staff had occasion to learn from several young adults (all black men in their early twenties) as they attempted to navigate the world of reentry services, mandatory supervised release and reintegration back into impoverished communities in Chicago after being imprisoned for several years in both Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) youth centers and Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) adult prisons.  Our final impression from this experience is profound skepticism at the ability of the existing reentry framework to stem the continuous cycle of people exiting and returning to jail and prison. Both conceptually and in execution, reentry as a societal project — at least in its current incarnation — does not begin to adequately address even the most basic human needs (shelter, clothing, transportation, food, medication) of returning citizens.  That being said, we were moved and inspired by the patience, dedication and sacrifices of many on-the-ground direct service reentry workers and organizations that we encountered, who tirelessly work to triage and assist an onslaught of returning citizens with desperate needs— despite inadequate resources, unreliable funding streams, and myriad bureaucratic obstacles.

Following herein are some of JHA’s real-world observations made in the process of accompanying and, at times, endeavoring to assist people as they attempted to access critical reentry supports, resources and services following their release from prison.  These five key takeaways are based on our on the ground experience navigating reentry programs and opportunities with these young men shortly after their release from prison.  This list is in no way comprehensive or exhaustive.  Rather, it highlights just some of the more immediate, pressing needs and problems that the young men whom JHA met as they left prison experienced during their first few months after leaving prison.  There were also some bright, hopeful encounters along the way. In particular we met some extraordinary, persevering, compassionate, tireless reentry workers who are dedicated to assisting people returning from prison.  Our dive into the reentry process on the whole, however, illuminated some large gaps that exist for returning citizens trying to succeed.

October 18, 2019 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

October 17, 2019

All the testimony from House subcommittee hearing on FIRST STEP Act

As noted in this prior post, the US House of Representative's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security (of the Committee on the Judiciary) this afternoon held an Oversight Hearing on the "Federal Bureau of Prisons and Implementation of the First Step Act."  Now on this House webpage are links to all the witness written testimony. I have not yet had time to review any of this while on the road, but I welcome reader help in identifying highlights:

Panel One

The Honorable Kathleen Hawk Sawyer Ph.D 
Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons, Washington, DC, on behalf of U S Department of Justice

Ms. Antoinette Bacon Esq. 
Associate Deputy Attorney General Office of the Deputy Attorney General, U S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC

 

Panel Two

Mr. David Patton Esq. 
Executive Director, Federal Defenders of New York

Ms. Melissa Hamilton Ph.D 
Reader of Law & Criminal Justice, University of Surrey School of Law

Mr. John Walters 
Chief Operating Officer, Director, Hudson Institute Political Studies, Center for Substance Abuse Policy Research Hudson Institute

Ms. Andrea James Esq. 
Founder and Executive Director, National Council on Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women

October 17, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Bold goal for the REFORM Alliance: "get 1 million people out of the criminal justice system in five years"

In this post earlier this year, I blogged about the celebrities and business leaders coming together to form the REFORM Alliance, which is committed to "dramatically reduce the number of people who are unjustly under the control of the criminal justice system – starting with probation and parole."  I have long had great respect for the commitment and vision of this group, but I was especially exciting to see this press article discussion a bold goal for the Alliance.  The piece is headlined "Inspired by Meek Mill, Michael Rubin sets a goal: Get 1 million people out of the criminal justice system," and here are excerpts:

Michael Rubin first encountered the criminal justice system when he saw rapper Meek Mill sentenced to prison for a violation of his probation. “That was a life-changing moment for me," Rubin said.

Speaking at the B.PHL Innovation Festival in the Entercom media headquarters Tuesday, Rubin explained how that moment sparked a movement.  The billionaire entrepreneur made it his mission to get Mill out of prison and, following a massive public outcry and social media campaign (#FreeMeek), he was released after five months.

Now, Rubin and Mill, who have been close friends for years, are working to transform the criminal justice system. In January, Rubin and Mill founded The REFORM Alliance, a partnership of titans in the entertainment, sports and business worlds.  They’re focusing on disrupting the probation system, which oversees 180,000 people in Pennsylvania alone, according to federal figures.

The REFORM Alliance is pushing to change Pennsylvania law to reduce the number of years people can stay on probation and to ensure people can’t be sent back to prison for technical violations.  About one in four prison admissions nationwide are due to probation violations, according to a study by the Council for State Governments Justice Center.

Pennsylvania is just the first step for the REFORM Alliance.  Rubin said the organization’s nationwide mission is to get 1 million people out of the criminal justice system in five years.  Nationwide, there are more than 4.5 million on probation and parole. “One million is a gigantic number,” Rubin said.  But he added, “I’m going to be unrelenting until we accomplish that.”...

Rubin’s got the money and the message to make a difference.  He’s the founder and CEO of Kynetic, the firm which owns online retailers Fanatics, Rue La La and ShopRunner.  He’s also a partner of the Philadelphia 76ers and a minority owner of the New Jersey Devils.

He lined up heavy hitters to build REFORM.  Other founding partners include hip-hop superstar and entrepreneur Jay-Z, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Robert Smith, founder and CEO of Vista Equity Partners and the richest black man in America.  Rubin tapped political activist Van Jones to serve as the CEO of REFORM.  The group now has more raised than $50 million and is working to convince lawmakers and voters of the need for change.

October 17, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Large group of US Senators re-introduce bill to create National Criminal Justice Commission

As detailed in this press release from the office of U.S. Senator Gary Peters, a sizable group of Senators have reintroduced a criminal justice reform bill that I have long viewed as worthwhile. Here are excerpts from the release:

U.S. Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John Cornyn (R-TX) [Wenesday] announced the reintroduction of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, bipartisan legislation that would task a National Criminal Justice Commission to assess the entire system and propose reforms to address the most pressing issues facing the nation’s criminal justice system....

The full list of bipartisan cosponsors for this bill includes Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Susan Collins (R-ME), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Tim Kaine (D-VA), John Kennedy (R-LA), Bob Casey (D-PA), Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM).

The legislation would create a 14-member, bipartisan National Criminal Justice Commission charged with completing an 18-month, comprehensive review of the national criminal justice system, including federal, state, local and tribal criminal justice systems, and issuing recommendations for changes in oversight, policies, practices and laws to reduce crime, increase public safety and promote confidence in the criminal justice system.

The Commission would be made up of Presidential and Congressional appointees, including experts on law enforcement, criminal justice, victims’ rights, civil liberties and social services.  Peters, Graham and Cornyn previously introduced similar legislation to establish a National Criminal Justice Commission.  Their legislation passed the Senate in December 2018.

The transparent and bipartisan National Criminal Justice Commission would also provide a better understanding of community relationships with law enforcement and the administration of justice through our court system, and identify effective policies to address a broad range of issues in the criminal justice system including crime reduction, incarceration and prisoner reentry.

The last comprehensive review of the criminal justice system was conducted in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson created the Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice.  The 1965 Commission’s report offered over 200 recommendations that have shaped the current criminal justice system, including the creation of the 9-1-1 system establishment of research organizations like the Bureau of Justice Statistics and improved training and professionalization for law enforcement.

The National Criminal Justice Commission Act is supported by a broad coalition of criminal justice organizations, including law enforcement and criminal justice reform advocates.

October 17, 2019 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Work, Pay, or Go to Jail: Court-Ordered Community Service in Los Angeles"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report coming from folks at UCLA.  This webpage provides this overview of the report's coverage:

Work, Pay, or Go to Jail: Court-Ordered Community Service in Los Angeles is the first study to analyze a large-scale system of court-ordered community service in the contemporary United States.  It finds that court-ordered community service functions as a system of unregulated and coercive labor, which worsens the effects of criminal justice debt and displaces paid jobs.

Among other discoveries, the report finds:

  • Over 100,000 people in LA County register to perform mandated community service each year.  Because they are classified as volunteers, workers do not receive wages or labor protections from safety hazards, discrimination, or harassment.
  • Workers face widespread barriers to completing their community service.  Over two thirds of people from criminal court and about two in five from traffic court did not complete their hours in time.  Their inability to finish often led to penalties that court-ordered community service was established to avoid.
  • Community service annually supplants approximately 4,900 jobs in LA County, replacing 1,800 positions in the government sector alone.

Report authors recommend rolling back the threats of jail and court debt that force people into community service; expanding alternative sanctions that do not rely on forced, extractive labor; and transforming punitive mandatory community service into economic opportunity through paying jobs.

October 17, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 16, 2019

Usual suspects playing usual roles in Malvo argument over juve LWOP sentencing

In recent SCOTUS history, Eighth Amendment cases in the Supreme Court tended to be pretty predictable with certain Justices as regular votes for defendants, others as regular votes for the state, and Justice Kennedy (and sometimes the Chief Justice) being the key swing voter.  But Justice Kennedy is now gone, and it appear from this SCOTUS review of the oral argument in Mathena v. Malvo that Justice Kennedy's replacement, Justice Kavanaugh, may be slipping into the swinger shoes:

Kavanaugh asked both Heytens and Spinelli about the broader question of how courts should approach sentencing of juveniles.  If Miller and Montgomery require the sentence to consider a defendant’s youth to determine whether he is incorrigible (and therefore should be sentenced to life in prison without parole) or instead simply immature (and therefore should have at least the possibility of parole), Kavanaugh asked, would that requirement be satisfied by a discretionary regime that includes the defendant’s youth among the factors that the sentence must consider or that allows the defense counsel to raise the issue?  That proposal seemed to draw support from an array of justices, including Kagan, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and perhaps even Chief Justice John Roberts.

Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger has this accounting of possible head-counting:

I'm sure Justice Kagan would like the Court to just accept Montgomery's recasting of Miller on its face and endorse an intrusive rule for federal micromanagement of juvenile LWOP sentencing, just like the monstrosity we have for capital sentencing.  I would be surprised if she has a majority for that.  I think Justice Alito (and probably Justice Thomas) would like to overrule Montgomery.  I doubt they have a majority for that.  Justice Gorsuch seems inclined to a narrow reading of Montgomery, though, because a broad one would implicate the Apprendi rule.

Justices Ginsburg and Breyer question the Virginia Supreme Court's holding that the Virginia system actually was discretionary at the time of Malvo's sentencing.  The Fourth Circuit assumed that was correct.  They could send the case back to reconsider that point.

With this many splits among the Justices, there is no predicting the outcome.

The full transcript of the argument is available at this link.

October 16, 2019 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

House Judiciary subcommittee to hold oversight hearing on "Federal Bureau of Prisons and Implementation of the First Step Act"

As detailed at this link, the US House of Representative's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security (of the Committee on the Judiciary) has scheduled for the afternoon of Thursday October 17 an "Oversight Hearing on the Federal Bureau of Prisons and Implementation of the First Step Act."  The witness list is available at this link.

I am cautiously hopeful that this hearing will result in some significant new data and other information about FIRST STEP Act implementation effort, although this Bureau of Prisons webpage has been pretty good with some basic numbers.

October 16, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Another LWOP federal drug sentence reduced under § 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act

Regular readers may already be tired of many prior posts in which I have made much of a key provision of the FIRST STEP Act that now allows federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  But I continue to see value in highlighting developing jurisprudence under this provision largely because I think, if applied appropriately and robustly, this provision could and should enable many hundreds (and perhaps many thousands) of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced.

Last week, I flagged in this post a notable recent ruling in US v. Brown, No. 4:05-CR-00227-1, 2019 WL 4942051 (S.D. Iowa Oct. 8, 2019), which rejected a § 3582(c)(1)(A) motion to reduce an extreme sentence for a federal drug offender.  Today, thanks to seeing this press report headlined "Judge in Oregon grants compassionate release for 76-year-old man serving life sentence for drug conspiracy," I can report on a successful § 3582(c)(1)(A) motion to reduce an extreme (LWOP) sentence for a federal drug offender.  The ruling US v. Soears, No. 3:98-cr-0208-SI-22, 2019 WL 5190877 (D. Ore. Oct. 15, 2019), is well described in the above-linked press piece:

A judge has ordered the release of a 76-year-old man who was sentenced to life and served nearly 21 years behind bars for running a large cocaine distribution ring, finding he meets the “extraordinary and compelling’’ reasons for compassionate release.

Despite objections from prosecutors, U.S. Judge Michael H. Simon found Adolph Spears Sr. suffers from potentially terminal health problems and is no longer a danger to the community. "In light of the age of Spears’ previous convictions, Spears’ age, and Spears’ physical and medical condition, the Court does not find that at this time Spears poses a significant risk to the community," Simon wrote in a 13-page opinion Tuesday.

The judge’s ruling is a direct result of changes to federal law from a criminal justice bill called the First Step Act, which passed late last year and allows federal courts to directly reduce sentences if an inmate meets the criteria for compassionate release....

Because of his medical problems, Spears was moved in May from the federal prison in Sheridan to the Butner Medical Facility in North Carolina. "While he has been at Butner, family members have made regular cross-country visits to see him, believing that each one may be the last," his defense lawyer Lisa Ludwig wrote to the court. "Allowing him to spend the time he has left being cared for by the family who loves him will be an act of compassion to Mr. Spears, but also to the family who cares so deeply for him."

Spears has multiple chronic serious medical ailments, a limited life expectancy and depends on a wheelchair to get around, according to one of his medical experts. He was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer in June 2018. He also suffers from poorly controlled diabetes, cataracts, pain from spinal surgery, chronic kidney disease, limited mobility and difficulty swallowing. Three of his daughters, a daughter-in-law and granddaughters have offered to house Spears if he’s released and provide medical and financial support.

Spears submitted his release request to the prisons bureau on Sept. 13, the same day he filed a motion with the court. On Sept. 30, the prisons bureau denied Spears’ request, and said he could appeal or wait until 30 days after his initial request was made to file a motion with the court. The judge said he waited until Tuesday, more than 30 days after Spears made his request to the prisons bureau, to consider the motion.

The judge said Spears’ deteriorating physical health met the requirements for compassionate release, and said it appeared that the federal prisons bureau failed to consider anything beyond whether Spears had a terminal illness. The U.S. probation office, at the judge’s request, approved the home of one of Spears’ daughters for his release, finding her suitable as his caregiver.

Prosecutors had argued that Spears remains a danger, largely because he was convicted of a significant drug conspiracy and he possessed guns during his drug trafficking activities. He also previously was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and was sentenced to 25 years after he offered a man $500 to burn down an IRS agent’s house while he was being investigated in 1978 for tax evasion, according to court records.

Federal prosecutors argued that Spears’ age and medical condition don’t render him "so incapacitated" that he couldn’t resume his criminal conduct, pointing out he was leading a drug ring in his late 50s. Simon said he took into account Spears’ criminal history but noted that Spears’ most recent drug conviction is more than 19 years old and his last conviction for a crime of violence is more than 40 years old.

It’s unlikely Spears would have faced as serious a sentence today if convicted of the same conduct, Simon noted. He was convicted of distributing crack cocaine when sentences for such drug crimes were much higher and judges had less discretion, Simon wrote. Since then, Congress has made changes to avoid sentencing disparities in such drug cases. The judge said he’ll order new conditions for Spears’ release and a lifetime of federal supervision.

Some prior related posts on § 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act:

October 16, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

October 15, 2019

Rounding up some previews of SCOTUS consideration of DC sniper Lee Malvo's juve LWOP sentence

Tomorrow afternoon, the US Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Mathena v. Malvo, a case that calls upon the Justice to continue struggling with the application of the Eighth Amendment limits on LWOP sentences that was set out in Miller v. Alabama and given retroactive effect in Montgomery v. LouisianaThis SCOTUSblog page has links to all the briefing in this case and sets out this question presented as framed by the state of Virginia:

Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit erred in concluding — in direct conflict with Virginia’s highest court and other courts — that a decision of the Supreme Court, Montgomery v. Louisiana, addressing whether a new constitutional rule announced in an earlier decision, Miller v. Alabama, applies retroactively on collateral review may properly be interpreted as modifying and substantively expanding the very rule whose retroactivity was in question.

The intricacies of this question presented highlights that the Justice could approach the Malvo case as a small technical matter only about the proper application of prior settled decisions.  But because the crimes of Lee Malvo were horrific and the rulings in Miller and Montgomery contentious, there are advocates who wonder and fear that certain Justices may be eager to use this case to cut back on the Court's recent Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.

I have seen a number of notable previews and commentary concerning the Malvo case, and here is a sampling:

October 15, 2019 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Will the Supreme Court Rein in 'Excessive Fines' and Forfeitures?: Don’t Rely on Timbs v. Indiana"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Nora Demleitner now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The Supreme Court’s decision in Timbs v. Indiana, 139 S. Ct. 682 (2019), last term buoyed the hopes of those who saw it as a powerful signal to states and municipalities to rein in excessive fines, fees, and forfeitures.  Yet, the Court seems disinclined to fill the term “proportionality” with robust meaning or wrestle with Eighth Amendment challenges to fines and fees.  Those steps would be required for the Excessive Fines Clause to function as an effective backstop against revenue-raising and increasingly abusive local and state practices.  In the end, state courts and state legislative changes may more likely address effectively the essential question of what is excessive and restrain criminal justice actors from imposing ever heavier financial burdens on those caught up in the system.

This article first sets out the Supreme Court’s decision in Timbs in light of the incorporation debate and prior case law in the area.  Next it turns to the underlying but unaddressed contours of “excessive” in the context of fines and forfeitures.  The article then provides a broader look at forfeiture, including the interplay between state and federal law enforcement in the area.  Finally, the piece addresses state and local fines and fees, which will now be subject to Eighth Amendment analysis.  The Court, however, rejected the first opportunity to take up such a challenge.  At least for now, litigants may be more successful in reining in abusive fines and forfeitures in state legislatures and state courts.

October 15, 2019 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Lots more cert denials and Rehaif GVRs in second SCOTUS order list of OT19

The Supreme Court this morning has released this relatively short order list, although the list of cases in which certiorari has been denied still runs about 10 pages.  The order list, like the one last week, starts with a list of cases in which "certiorari is granted, [t]he judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded" to the relevant Court of Appeals."  But all the Supreme Court's GVR work this week — six cases to be exact — relates to its mens rea ruling in Rehaif v. US, No. 17-9560 (S. Ct. June 21, 2019) (available here; discussed here).   In his Rehaif dissent, Justice Alito fretted that "great many convictions will be subject to challenge...."  Indeed.

October 15, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 14, 2019

"There Are Way Too Many Prosecutors in the Federal Judiciary: It’s time for a moratorium."

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Slate commentary authored by Clark Neily discussing this notable recent report he did with the Cato Institute.  Here are excerpts from the Slate piece:

It’s no secret that federal judges do not, by and large, look like the rest of us.  They are whiter than average, more male, and more likely to have attended elite schools and worked at big law firms.  But there’s another quirk of the judiciary that hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves: the wild imbalance between judges who used to represent the government in court and judges who used to challenge the government in court.

According to conventional wisdom, the surest way to become a federal judge is to first be a prosecutor.  But is that really true?  Until now, no one had ever examined the professional background of every sitting federal judge to see whether former prosecutors are in fact overrepresented on the federal bench.  So we at the Cato Institute did, and they are — massively.  But our study didn’t just look at former prosecutors.  We also broadened our scope to compare judges who served as courtroom advocates for the government in any capacity — criminal or civil — versus the judges who cut their teeth litigating against the government as public defenders, other criminal defense attorneys, and public interest lawyers.

Focusing just on former prosecutors versus former criminal defense attorneys (including but not limited to public defenders), the ratio on the federal bench is 4 to 1. Expanding the scope to include all former courtroom advocates for the government (but not other kinds of government lawyers, such as agency heads and general counsels), and comparing that to former public defenders, private criminal defense attorneys, and public interest lawyers, the ratio jumps to an astonishing 7 to 1. President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees, many of whom are committed originalists and supporters of constitutionally limited government, reflect these same ratios....

Of course, the fact that someone worked as a prosecutor, a defense attorney, or a public interest lawyer doesn’t necessarily mean they will be biased in that direction while serving as a judge.  Still, most of us have a strong intuition that a person’s prior professional experiences are likely to influence not only their worldview but also their approach to particular cases.  That’s why prosecutors routinely use their peremptory strikes to remove defense attorneys from the jury pool in criminal cases — and defense attorneys do the same thing to prosecutors.  It’s nothing personal; they simply recognize, as we all do, that experience inevitably informs judgment.

Given the government’s vast resources, nearly every court case pitting a lone citizen against the state represents a David-versus-Goliath fight for justice.  To further stack the deck with judges who are far more likely to have earned their spurs representing Goliath than David is unfair to individual litigants and a bad look for the justice system as a whole.

Fortunately, the solution is simple: a temporary moratorium on nominating former prosecutors to the bench and a strong preference for lawyers with substantial experience representing individuals against the government in criminal and civil cases.  If that proposal seems extreme, consider the image of a federal judiciary in which former public defenders outnumbered prosecutors 4 to 1.  Notwithstanding the transformative effect that would have on our deeply dysfunctional criminal justice system, not to mention the Bill of Rights, it’s probably not a good idea.  But neither is it wise to continue doing nothing while the imbalance runs the other way.  It is perfectly understandable that current government officials wish to stock the courts with former government advocates.  But it’s a bad deal for the rest of us and a doubtful way to ensure equal justice under law.

October 14, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

October 13, 2019

Catching up with another round of sentencings in "Operation Varsity Blues"

Three more parents were sentencing this past week by US District Court Judge Indira Talwani in the "Operation Varsity Blues" college admissions scandal.  Here are the headlines and essential from press accounts of these latest high-profile federal sentencings:

From NBC News, "NYC man, wife both sentenced to month in prison in college admissions scam: Gregory and Marcia Abbott paid $125,000 to have their daughter's SAT and ACT altered":

A New York man and his wife were each sentenced Tuesday to a month behind bars for paying a college-admission fixer to boost their daughter's SAT and ACT scores.  Gregory and Marcia Abbott will also have to complete a year of supervised release, pay a $45,000 fine and perform 250 hours of community service each, under sentences handed down in Boston by U.S. District Court Judge Indira Talwani.

The couple had already pleaded guilty in May to a single count each of fraud and conspiracy, paying $125,000 to ring leader Rick Singer for someone to correct answers on their daughter’s college board exams....

Prosecutors had asked Talwani to sentence the Abbotts to eight months in prison each.  Defense lawyers had sought probation for the pair.  The couple paid $50,000 to have a test proctor correct their daughter's ACT exam answers in 2018, and then another $75,000 to fix her SAT.

From the Los Angeles Times, "Bay Area entrepreneur is spared prison in college admissions scandal":

If any of the parents waiting to be sentenced in the college admissions scandal stood a chance at avoiding prison, it was Peter Jan Sartorio. He was, by any measurement, a small fish in a case filled with high-profile names and deep pockets: The $15,000 the 54-year-old food entrepreneur from the Bay Area paid to rig his daughter’s college entrance exam matched the lowest amount parents shelled out in the scam.  And with neither fame nor fortune, Sartorio didn’t fit the mold of the rich, entitled parent who prosecutors said needed to be punished with time behind bars.  He also was the first to admit his guilt.

On Friday a judge in Boston decided Sartorio was, in fact, less culpable than the others.  She spared him prison time, sentencing him instead to probation and community service. 

Sartorio is the eighth parent sentenced in the case and, for all up to now, U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani decided some amount of incarceration was needed.  The judge opted to go more lightly on Sartorio than she did on the actress Felicity Huffman, who received two weeks in prison for the same offense.  Sartorio was ordered to spend a year on probation, serve 250 hours of community service and pay a $9.500 fine....

Prosecutors had sought a one-month sentence for Sartorio, saying it was clear the father of two knew at the time that what he was doing was wrong. They underscored in court papers that when it came time to pay Singer, Sartorio avoided leaving a paper trail by paying cash and made multiple withdrawals from different accounts to avoid triggering automatic reviews by banking officials.

Prior related Varsity Blues posts:

October 13, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)