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November 23, 2019

DVR alert for new documentary, "College Behind Bars"

CBB-hero_18x7Thanks to seeing this recent USA Today article, headlined "'Undoing a mistake': Ken Burns film looks inside the push to bring college education back to prison," I just set my DVR to record what looking like an important documentary for all policymakers and reform advocates.  Here are some highlights from the lengthy press article:

Stacks of books are organized meticulously by genre amid the chaos of a maximum security prison.  A makeshift desk made from cardboard is placed over a sink in a cramped cell. A chalkboard is filled with Chinese symbols in a room filled with eager students in green jumpsuits. Late night studying. This isn’t the picture most Americans have of prison.

More often than not, violence, isolation and anger are what come to mind. But these scenes from a PBS documentary airing this month show viewers a different kind of prison life — the rigorous pursuit of higher education.

“College Behind Bars" follows students in the Bard Prison Initiative, a privately funded college program that began in 2001 in New York state prisons. For now, the roughly 300 students taking classes free of charge at the elite college are the exception. Most incarcerated individuals cannot afford a college education — and all are banned from applying for federal grants.

It wasn’t always this way. For decades, college prison programs flourished across the country. After the passage of the 1994 Crime Bill, Pell Grants were banned for those who are incarcerated. For the first time in more than two decades, a push to lift this ban is sparking bipartisan support. Last month, Congress introduced bills that would reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for those incarcerated as part of wider college affordability legislation.

For formerly incarcerated individuals, educational experts and advocates, it’s about time. They argue that post-secondary education behind bars will lower the likelihood that an individual returns to prison and that it will benefit society as whole. “Ninety-five percent of people who are in prison will get out,” Ken Burns, executive producer of the PBS film, told USA TODAY. “Do you want them as responsible, taxpaying citizens or people who have used their time in prison to hone their criminal skills?”

Incarcerated at 17, Jule Hall spent more than 20 years in prison and is one of the main figures in the PBS documentary, which airs Monday and Tuesday. The film trails Hall, a 2011 Bard Prison Initiative graduate who earned a bachelor's degree in German studies, as he navigates the parole process, is released from prison and enters the workforce.

Hall works at the Ford Foundation analyzing the impact of social justice grants — an experience he describes as "another Bard" because of the experts and cutting-edge ideas. "What BPI has achieved is exceptional, but I think it's only a small part of what can be done if we get serious about this," Hall said. "I want people to walk away from this film understanding that there are many more people who want to be involved in programs like this that are incarcerated, but they don't have the access or the possibility of doing so."

Access to education is at the heart of filmmaker Lynn Novick and producer Sarah Botstein's vision. When the two screened one of their films at a BPI class at Eastern Correctional Facility in New York, the engaging conversation they had with the inmates encouraged them to expose the program to more people. "After that one experience in the classroom, we walked out and just felt like, 'Oh my gosh, this is something everybody needs to know is happening,' " Novick said.

The official website for "College Behind Bars" is available at this link, where one can find an extended trailer and additional clips along with airing information for DVR setting.  (I realize I am showing my age when I talked about DVR setting, I expect (and hope) lots of younger folks will just stream this doc.) Here is how the documentary is briefly described on the official website:

College Behind Bars, a four-part documentary film series directed by award-winning filmmaker Lynn Novick, produced by Sarah Botstein, and executive produced by Ken Burns, tells the story of a small group of incarcerated men and women struggling to earn college degrees and turn their lives around in one of the most rigorous and effective prison education programs in the United States — the Bard Prison Initiative.

Shot over four years in maximum and medium security prisons in New York State, the four-hour film takes viewers on a stark and intimate journey into one of the most pressing issues of our time — our failure to provide meaningful rehabilitation for the over two million Americans living behind bars.  Through the personal stories of the students and their families, the film reveals the transformative power of higher education and puts a human face on America’s criminal justice crisis.  It raises questions we urgently need to address: What is prison for?  Who has access to educational opportunity?  Who among us is capable of academic excellence? How can we have justice without redemption?

November 23, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

November 22, 2019

"Let’s pardon prisoners, not turkeys"

Regular readers know that I cannot let a holiday season go by without remarking repeatedly on the fact that clemency grants for cleverly named Turkeys are more consistent and predictable than for actual human beings this time of year.  I will start this season's clemency kvetching by spotlighting some passages from this new Washington Post commentary by Mark Osler with the same headline as the title of this post:

At some point before Thanksgiving, President Trump will likely pardon a pair of turkeys.  The turkeys will be given silly names (past recipients have included birds named Mac and Cheese), some children and White House staffers will look on, and there will be forced jokes and stiff laughter.

It’s painful to watch.  Worse, it mocks the raw truth that the federal clemency system is completely broken. While those two turkeys receive their pardons, nearly 14,000 clemency petitions sit in a sludgy backlog. Many of the federal inmates who have followed the rules, assembled documents, poured out their hearts in petitions and worked hours at a prison job just to pay for the stamps on the envelope have waited for years in that queue....

There is a deep sadness in all this: the graceless show of “pardoning” turkeys; the endless pile of files somewhere; the bizarre, tragic and wrong belief that a central constitutional power of the presidency has been delegated to a single well-meaning celebrity....

The Trump administration inherited a clemency review process that is seemingly designed to result in good cases not getting to the president.  Bureaucrats in the Office of the Pardon Attorney — which is buried deep in the Justice Department — review the cases when petitions are received.  Part of their job is to solicit the view of local prosecutors, the very people who sought the sentence in the first place, and Justice Department standards direct that the views of those prosecutors be given “considerable weight” in determining a recommendation.  From the start, there is a thumb on the scale.  That reviewer passes the case to the pardon attorney, who passes it to an official in the office of the deputy attorney general, who passes it to the deputy attorney general himself.  Then it goes to a staffer in the White House counsel’s office, then to her boss and finally to the president.  There is no evidence this system is working at all.  It is a pipe with seven valves that all must be opened at once by seven busy people with very different interests; we shouldn’t be surprised that nothing is flowing through.

Meanwhile, a more informal clemency process has emerged. This one is simple: A television channel, Fox News, makes recommendations directly to Trump, an avid watcher.  Most recently, two military officers received full pardons and another had his rank restored via this route. Previous recipients of Fox News-Trump clemency have included Joe Arpaio, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby and Dinesh D’Souza.  I don’t begrudge any of them the break they received (though others do).  Alexander Hamilton was right to call clemency “the benign prerogative”; at worst, it produces mercy. My argument is for more clemency, not less.  The problem is that we have two systems, one formal and one informal, that both fail to deliver the level of mercy our history of retribution and over-incarceration requires.

November 22, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sixth Circuit clarifies FIRST STEP creates eligibility for reduced sentence whenever Fair Sentencing Act "modified the statutory penalty"

Section 404 of the FIRST STEP Act of 2018 finally provided for retroactive application of statutory changes to reduce federal crack sentences put in place by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.  Simple as that might sound, lower courts are still struggling with all the different permutations of who may be eligible for a reduced sentence under FIRST STEP, and a Sixth Circuit panel addressed this issue in a short and effective opinion yesterday in US v. Beamus, No. 19-5533 (6th Cir. Nov. 21, 2019) (available here).  I recommend the opinion in full, but here is the essence in four paragraphs:

Beamus requested resentencing under the First Step Act.  The district court denied this request without reaching the merits, concluding that because the Sentencing Guidelines classify Beamus as a “career offender[],” he is “ineligible for [a] sentence reduction[] under the First Step Act.” ROA 13 at A-2.  Beamus appeals that determination, and the government concedes error.

Rightly so.  By its terms, the First Step Act permits Beamus to seek resentencing. He was convicted of an offense for which the Fair Sentencing Act modified the statutory penalty, and he has not received a reduction in accordance with that Act or lost such a motion on the merits.  The text of the First Step Act contains no freestanding exception for career offenders. Nor would one expect to see such an exception. It makes retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act’s changes to the statutory range for crack cocaine offenses....

It’s true, as the government notes, that the Fair Sentencing Act’s changes to the statutory penalty for Beamus’s drug offense also would have affected his guidelines range.  But that’s happenstance in this instance.  Beamus is eligible for resentencing because, and only because, the Fair Sentencing Act modified the statutory range for his offense.  That the Sentencing Guidelines also would have applied differently does not affect his eligibility for resentencing.

That Beamus is eligible for resentencing does not mean he is entitled to it. The First Step Act ultimately leaves the choice whether to resentence to the district court’s sound discretion.  See First Step Act of 2018, § 404(b); see also United States v. Hegwood, 934 F.3d 414, 418 (5th Cir. 2019).  In exercising that discretion, a judge may take stock of several considerations, among them the criminal history contained in the presentence report.  How do these considerations play out for Beamus?  That’s a question only the district court can answer.  We reverse and remand to give it the opportunity to do so.

November 22, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

November 21, 2019

"Prosecuting Opioid Use, Punishing Rurality"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Valena Elizabeth Beety no available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The opioid crisis spotlights rural communities, and accompanying that bright light are long-standing, traditional biased tropes about backwards and backwoods White Appalachians. These stereotypes conflate rurality with substance use disorder as the next progression in dehumanizing stereotypes.  Widespread attention to our nation’s use disorder crisis, however, also brings an opportunity to recognize these fallacious stereotypes and to look more closely at the criminal legal systems in rural communities.  In this Article, I use drug-induced homicide — what has become a popular prosecutorial charge in response to the opioid crisis — as a prism to identify and critique the failings in rural criminal courts more broadly.  This Article includes modest recommendations that acknowledge and respond to these inadequacies while attempting to preserve people’s constitutional rights and decrease opiate-related overdoses.

November 21, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Senators Cornyn and Whitehouse introduce RE-ENTER Act to enable federal judges to issue "Certificate of Rehabilitation" to former offenders

As detailed in this press release, "U.S. Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and John Cornyn (R-TX) today introduced the Recognizing Education, Employment, New Skills, and Treatment to Enable Reintegration (RE-ENTER) Act, which would allow federal judges to issue a Certificate of Rehabilitation to acknowledge an eligible offender who has successfully reintegrated into society." Here is more about this interesting legislative news via the release:

These certificates can help formerly incarcerated individuals find jobs and housing and help prospective employers or landlords determine whether an applicant has been rehabilitated. "Reformed offenders who have served their time have the best chance of staying out of trouble and becoming productive members of society if they can secure a foothold in a job and find housing," said Sen. Whitehouse. "Our bill would follow the successful example set by states that vet people with criminal records to determine whether they have earned a Certificate of Rehabilitation."

“Most incarcerated individuals will be released at some point, and we need to encourage them and give them every tool necessary to be productive members of society,” said Sen. Cornyn. “The housing benefits and job opportunities that these certificates can help make available to former inmates will help us ensure that those who get out of prison will stay out of prison.”

Background:

In at least 16 states and the District of Columbia, state court judges have the power to issue certificates of rehabilitation to address the impact of state convictions. These certificates signal that a recipient has successfully reintegrated into society and no longer poses a significant risk of reoffending. Just like with the First Step Act, Congress can learn from states’ success.

Additionally, this legislation would:

  • Allow eligible offenders to petition the appropriate district court for a certificate;
  • Direct courts to consider various factors to determine whether a certificate is appropriate, including the crime of conviction, activities and education, efforts at employment and restitution, and other current conditions;
  • Permit federal prosecutors to weigh in with the district court and allows courts to appoint federal public defenders to assist the petitioner;
  • Require federal agencies and courts to consider the certificate when making housing, benefits, and eligibility determinations for other programs;
  • And express the sense of Congress that a certificate should help former inmates with licensing, housing, and employment determinations, protect employers who hire recipients of certificates, and contribute to pardon and clemency efforts.
In addition to Senators Cornyn and Whitehouse, the bill is cosponsored by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Chris Coons (D-DE), Rob Portman (R-OH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Mike Crapo (R-ID), and Joni Ernst (R-IA).
The bill is endorsed by Prison Fellowship, the National District Attorneys’ Association, #Cut50, Americans for Prosperity, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration, and the Justice Action Network.

Here is the full legislation and a one-pager for downloading:

November 21, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

"The Steep Costs of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines: A Fiscal Analysis of Three States and Ten Counties"

The title of this post is the title of this big new notable report published by the Brennan Center for Justice and "produced with research assistance from the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Right on Crime." Here is the first part of the 68-page report's executive summary:

The past decade has seen a troubling and well-documented increase in fees and fines imposed on defendants by criminal courts. Today, many states and localities rely on these fees and fines to fund their court systems or even basic government operations.

A wealth of evidence has already shown that this system works against the goal of rehabilitation and creates a major barrier to people reentering society after a conviction.  They are often unable to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in accumulated court debt. When debt leads to incarceration or license suspension, it becomes even harder to find a job or housing or to pay child support. There’s also little evidence that imposing onerous fees and fines improves public safety.

Now, this first-of-its-kind analysis shows that in addition to thwarting rehabilitation and failing to improve public safety, criminal-court fees and fines also fail at efficiently raising revenue. The high costs of collection and enforcement are excluded from most assessments, meaning that actual revenues from fees and fines are far lower than what legislators expect. And because fees and fines are typically imposed without regard to a defendant’s ability to pay, jurisdictions have billions of dollars in unpaid court debt on the books that they are unlikely to ever collect. This debt hangs over the heads of defendants and grows every year.

This study examines 10 counties across Texas, Florida, and New Mexico, as well as statewide data for those three states.  The counties vary in their geographic, economic, political, and ethnic profiles, as well as in their practices for collecting and enforcing fees and fines.

November 21, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

Federal judge halts pending scheduled federal executions based on contention that planned execution protocol "exceeds statutory authority"

As explained in this Politico article, a federal district "judge has blocked the scheduled executions of four federal death row inmates, effectively freezing the Trump administration’s effort to resume imposing the death penalty in a federal system that saw its last execution more than a decade and a half ago."  Here is a link to the ruling and a summary from this press account: The order issued Wednesday night by U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan halts four executions that U.S. officials planned to carry out starting next month.

The order issued Wednesday night by U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan halts four executions that U.S. officials planned to carry out starting next month. The only other execution that officials had put on the calendar, also for December, was blocked last month by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

In July, Attorney General William Barr announced plans to resume executions at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind. He suggested the practice had been allowed to languish for too long and said it would deliver justice in cases involving what he called the “worst criminals.” Barr announced a new federal death penalty protocol that would use a single drug, pentobarbital, in lieu of a three-drug “cocktail” employed in the most recent federal executions.

In the wake of Barr’s announcement, a series of death row prisoners joined a long-dormant legal challenge to that previous method and asked Chutkan to block their execution under the new protocol until their legal challenges to it were fully adjudicated.

In her ruling Wednesday, Chutkan said the death row inmates appeared likely to prevail on their arguments that the new protocol violates longstanding federal law because the procedures to be used vary from state law. A 1994 federal statute says federal executions shall be carried out “in the manner prescribed by the law of the State in which the sentence is imposed.”

Justice Department attorneys argued that the use of lethal injection was sufficiently similar regardless of the drugs used or other details of the execution protocol, but Chutkan ruled that the law likely requires federal authorities to adopt the same drugs or drugs and a similar process.

“Requiring the federal government to follow more than just the state’s method of execution is consistent with other sections of the statute and with historical practices. For all these reasons, this court finds that the FDPA [Federal Death Penalty Act] does not authorize the creation of a single implementation procedure for federal executions,” wrote the judge, an appointee of President Barack Obama. “There is no statute that gives the [Bureau of Prisons] or DOJ the authority to establish a single implementation procedure for all federal executions,” Chutkan added.

In granting the injunction, Chutkan noted the obvious fact that permitting the executions would deprive the inmates of their ability to pursue their legal challenges. She also turned aside the Justice Department’s claim that time was of the essence, noting that revisions to the federal death penalty protocol languished for years after shortages developed of at least one drug used in the earlier cocktail.

The earliest of the five executions that federal officials planned to carry out in the coming weeks was scheduled for Dec. 9. “While the government does have a legitimate interest in the finality of criminal proceedings, the eight years that it waited to establish a new protocol undermines its arguments regarding the urgency and weight of that interest,” the judge wrote.

When AG Barr announced the planned resumption of executions back in July and set five execution dates, I fully expected that some or all of the executions would be delayed by litigation. This particular basis for delay strike me as especially interesting because it will force the Justice Department to debate whether to appeal this ruling or to just try to adjust its protocols in light of the concerns expressed in this ruling. Either way, I am now inclined to confidently predict that we will not see a federal execution in 2019 and probably not in 2020.

November 21, 2019 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

November 20, 2019

Might we reasonably expect marijuana reform or other criminal justice issues to be engaged in tonight's Dem debate?

There is another Democratic Primary Debate slated for tonight, taking place in Atlanta, and I suspect one would get quite drunk if drinking every time someone says quid pro quo as suggested by Rolling Stone.  What I am not sure of is whether someone would be very drunk or very sober if the drinking word was marijuana.  As the title of this post suggests, there are reasons to think this debate might engage the issues given that former VP Joe Biden was talking about gateway drugs recently, and the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives today moved forward the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act.   

Of course, you can keep up with marijuana reform action at my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog, and here are some highlights from recent posts over there that should be especially relevant to folks discussing the modern policies and politics of reform:

November 20, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Latest Failure in the War on Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this new New York Times commentary authored by Brandon D.L. Marshall and Abdullah Shihipar.  Here are excerpts:

[D]espite the recognition of drug use as a public health issue, some states have also introduced “drug-induced homicide” laws that put the responsibility of an overdose at the feet of the drug suppliers. In Rhode Island, for example, under “Kristen’s Law” a person who supplies drugs to someone who overdoses can be punished with a life sentence.

These laws have been enacted in at least 25 states, while a few more are considering adopting them. They represent a return to the outdated “war on drugs” approach, which decades of research has shown to be unsuccessful. It instead increases risks for those who use drugs, particularly minority populations and people of color....

People who supply drugs are often friends or family members of those who overdose and often use drugs themselves. In a national survey, more than two in five people who reported having sold drugs also said they meet the criteria for a substance use disorder.  Another analysis of drug-induced homicide news stories, conducted by the Health in Justice Action Lab at Northeastern University, found that 50 percent of people who were charged under drug-induced homicide laws were either friends, caretakers, partners or family members.  Drug transactions are not as simple as buyer and seller....

Proponents say that because these laws have good Samaritan provisions — which protect from criminal consequence those who seek emergency medical assistance at the scene of a suspected drug overdose — they will not discourage people from calling 911 to report an overdose.  However, while studies have shown that knowledge of good Samaritan protections is associated with a willingness to call 911 in the event of an overdose, people are still afraid to call because of fear they will be charged....

What’s more, putting drug users in jail will only worsen the overdose crisis.  People who have recently been released from prison are at much greater risk of overdosing than the public — up to 40 times greater in some cases.  Most jails and prisons across the country do not have medications to treat opioid addiction, which means that when people are released they are especially vulnerable to fatal overdoses.

The war on drugs has hit communities of color the hardest, with Black and Latinx people much more likely to be arrested for simple possession and to receive harsher sentences than whites, despite rates of drug use being similar across all communities.  Even with promises from the authorities to pursue a public health approach, racial disparities in drug-related arrests persist.  A study conducted in Washington State found that among people who had received treatment for substance abuse disorder, black clients were more likely to have been arrested on substance-related charges compared to white clients.  The rate of Fentanyl-related overdose deaths has risen most sharply for black and Latinx people, so we can only expect that drug-induced homicide legislation will disproportionately and negatively affect them.

There has been progress: The Massachusetts Supreme Court recently struck down a drug-induced homicide conviction.  The court argued that the prosecution did not provide sufficient evidence that Jesse Carrillo knew that the heroin he gave to a fellow student, Eric Sinacori, would cause a deadly overdose.  Similar arguments can be made for other cases.  Fentanyl has so contaminated the drug supply that it is hard to determine how much control individual sellers have on quality and content.  Promoting the use of tools like fentanyl test strips, which can allow people to check their drugs before selling or using drugs, should be promoted.  Indeed, when we recently collaborated with other researchers on a study of Rhode Islanders at risk of fentanyl overdose, we found that those with a history of drug dealing were among the most likely to use fentanyl test strips.

Punitive measures threaten the progress we have made on the overdose crisis.  They push people into the shadows, increase overdose risk and contribute to racial disparities.  If the authorities are serious about treating drug use as a public health issue, then they have to let go of this longstanding fixation on punishment.

November 20, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Medical disputes before federal court as high-profile, white-collar prisoner seeks compassionate release

This NBC News article, headlined "NY prosecutors suggest former WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers is faking illness to get out of jail time," reports on an interesting dispute as a high-profile defendants seeks a sentencing reduction thanks to the FIRST STEP Act.  Here are the details:

Federal prosecutors say 78-year-old former WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers may not be in as bad physical shape as indicated in court filings seeking his early release from prison due to health concerns.

In a letter Monday to U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gina Castellano cites a note from a prison psychologist who listened in on phone calls between Ebbers and his daughter in recent weeks.  Joy Ebbers Bourne has said in a sworn declaration that her father has dementia.  “In the calls, he was alert, aware and oriented to person, place, time and situation,” the psychologist is quoted as saying, adding that Ebbers was asking about his daughter’s efforts to get him out of prison.  He is being held at the prison medical center in Fort Worth, Texas....

In a response filed in court Tuesday, Ebbers attorney Graham Carner said the alleged discrepancies can be explained by factors that have nothing to do with fakery.  “It is commonly known that people suffering from dementia (which can have many forms) can experience symptom fluctuation (i.e., ‘good days and bad days’),” Carner wrote.

The response, which notes that cognitive issues have not been the focus of Ebbers’ legal motion, cites other parts of his medical records that Carner says demonstrate Ebbers “has a substantially diminished ability to provide self-care in prison.”  Carner noted that Ebbers has suffered multiple falls, and that according to the medical report, he weighed just 148 pounds last week, down from 200 pounds in July.  “Objective medical findings show that his age and medical condition qualify as extraordinary and compelling reasons for compassionate release,” Carner wrote.

Caproni, a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, had given the government until Monday to supply the additional medical data, most of which were filed under seal.  In addition to asking for any tests as to whether Ebbers was malingering, or faking his memory loss, the judge asked for information on Ebbers’ rapid weight loss — the former bouncer has reportedly withered to around 160 pounds.  Castellano said an abdominal ultrasound performed late last month found “no definitively worrisome or sonographically acute findings,” but further tests are scheduled next month.

Ebbers has served about 13 years of his 25-year sentence for orchestrating the $11 billion accounting fraud by the defunct telecommunications company. With good behavior, he is scheduled for release in 2028.

Before the FIRST STEP Act, Ebbers' request for compassionate release almost surely would have been rejected by the Bureau of Prisons and that would be the end of the matter. Now, thanks to FIRST STEP, Ebbers' can get a federal judge to consider these matters.

November 20, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

November 19, 2019

Lots of interesting discussions of FIRST STEP Act (and Jeffrey Epstein) during Senate Judiciary's BOP oversight hearing

This morning, the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary held an hearing titled "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons" with a single witness testifying.  That witness was Dr. Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, the new Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the full two-hour hearing can be watched at this link.  

Dr. Hawk Sawyer submitted this lengthy written statement, and it covers a lot of BOP ground.  It also concludes with an extended discussion of FIRST STEP Act implementation efforts, and here is a snippet from that part of the written testimony:

The Bureau has made great progress in implementing the FSA.  We appreciate the considerable work of the Department of Justice (Department) in the implementation process, as well.  In particular, the Department’s National Institute of Justice has been instrumental in collaborating with us as we move forward aggressively to ensure this important criminal justice reform is appropriately and effectively implemented.  We similarly appreciate the ongoing work of the Independent Review Committee as they advise the Attorney General on the new risk and needs assessment systems required under the FSA.

We have listened to the important comments of the many interested stakeholders — from crime victims to a broad array of advocacy groups.  The statutory timelines in the FSA were formidable, and placed before us many challenges, but I am proud to say that the Bureau and the Department rose to that challenge.  And we continue to remain focused on the full, fair, and balanced implementation of the FSA....

With the President signing the FSA into law on December 21, 2018, several provisions became immediately effective. Despite the government shutdown, the Bureau rapidly developed guidance and policies to ensure appropriate implementation.  The retroactive application of sentence reductions under the Fair Sentencing Act resulted in over 2,300 orders for release, with the release thus far of over 1,600 of those inmates.  Staff also immediately began the challenge of re-programming our Good Conduct Time (GCT) sentence computations to reflect the change.  As a result, on July 19, 2019, when the GCT change took effect commensurate with the Attorney General’s release of the Risk and Needs Assessment System, the Bureau executed timely releases of over 3,000 inmates.

Guidance regarding the expanded Reduction in Sentence (RIS or compassionate release) provisions were issued in January 2019. Since the Act was signed into law, 109 inmates have received Compassionate Release.  The re-initiation of the Elderly Offender Pilot from the Second Chance Act of 2008 was issued in April 2019.  We currently have 358 inmates approved for the pilot, with 273 already on Home Confinement. The balance are pending their Home Confinement placement....

In accordance with the FSA, the Attorney General on July 19, 2019, released the Department’s report on the Risk and Needs Assessment System.  The new Risk Assessment system — the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs or PATTERN — has been developed by the Department and is currently undergoing fine-tuning as we consider feedback from stakeholders.  In the interim, the BOP has conducted extensive training for its staff on the key elements of the tool such that they are prepared to assess inmate risk in accordance with statutory deadlines.  The Bureau already has in place a robust Needs Assessment system, and we are working with experts in the field and research consultants to further enhance it.

During the hearing, FIRST STEP Act implementation issues were raised by a number of Senators. And lots and lots of other topics were also covered.  This AP article published yesterday, headlined "Federal Prison System Plagued by Abuses," provides a review of the range of BOP management issues were brought up during the hearing.  And this ABC News piece, headlined "Bureau of Prisons director set for grilling on Capitol Hill in wake of Epstein, Bulger deaths," names in its headline some of the high-profile prisoners of concerns to lawmakers.   Not surprisingly, especially with news of charges being brought against two guards for falsifying records, the death of Jeffrey Epstein was raised by a number of Senators.

As criminal justice nerd, I enjoyed all the issues raised throughout the entire oversight hearing, and I was encouraged by both the questions raised by many Senators and the answers provided by Dr. Hawk Sawyer.  And I especially enjoyed the surprising discussion during the early part of the hearing (starting just before minute 34) of Senator Lindsay Graham asking about "reinstituting parole in the federal system."  I am not sure why Senator Graham is now saying that reinstating parole is "something [Congress] should look at," but I am really intrigued by and supportive of any such efforts.  A couple of years ago, in this article titled "Reflecting on Parole’s Abolition in the Federal Sentencing System," I explained why I thought "parole might serve as an efficient and effective means to at least partially ameliorate long-standing concerns about mandatory minimum statutes and dysfunctional guidelines" and why sentencing reformers "ought to think about talking up the concept of federal parole anew."  Here is hoping Senator Graham might become a full-throated champion of giving serious consideration to bringing parole back to the federal system.

November 19, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

So much worthy of comment ... so let's round up some commentary

These are busy times in the criminal justice arena and elsewhere, and I never have enough time to keep up with, let alone blog about, all the notable news and commentary that sentencing fans might find interesting.  So, looking to cover a lot of ground quickly, here is a round-up of (mostly commentary) pieces that seem worth checking out.

From The Atlantic, "The Repurposing of the American Jail: Jails and prisons are becoming substance-abuse treatment facilities — even for those who haven’t been accused of a crime"

From The Appeal, "Ayanna Pressley Hopes The U.S. Can Reduce Its Prison Population By Over 80 Percent"

From The Hill, "Prison to proprietorship: The path to real second chances"

From the New York Times, "A Sad Last Gasp Against Criminal Justice Reform: Prosecutors and police should honor the will of the voters and implement long-overdue changes."

From Slate, "The Punishment Bureaucracy Has Nothing to Do With Justice"

From Vox, "The battle for voting rights in the age of mass incarceration: Ex-prisoners are getting their voting rights back. But the backlash has already started."

From the Washington Post, "Algorithms were supposed to make Virginia judges fairer. What happened was far more complicated."

November 19, 2019 in Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

November 18, 2019

Interesting look at a federal sentencing judge (and claims of judge shopping) in college admissions scandal cases

This new Los Angeles Times article, headlined "In sentencing Del Mar father, key judge in admissions scandal offers insight into future decisions," provides an interesting behind-the-scenes looks at one of the judges now at the center of upcoming sentencing in the Varsity Blues case. And toward the end of the piece there is an interesting discussion of purposed efforts to "judge shop." Here are excerpts:

It was a sentencing hearing for Toby Macfarlane, a Del Mar insurance executive who will spend six months in prison for conspiring to have his children admitted to USC as bogus athletic recruits. But on Wednesday, all eyes were on U.S. District Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton, who is also overseeing the cases of 15 other parents who’ve maintained their innocence in an investigation of fraud, graft and deceit in the college admissions process.

Lori Loughlin’s legal fate will be decided in Gorton’s courtroom. So, too, will those of many other high-profile names embroiled in the scandal, among them Loughlin’s husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, and Bill McGlashan, a San Francisco Bay Area financier.

Six attorneys for other parents charged in the scandal filled a bench in Gorton’s third-floor courtroom, taking notes and trying to gain insight into how the 81-year-old jurist views the allegations of fraud and bribery the government has brought against clients of William “Rick” Singer, the Newport Beach consultant who oversaw a scheme to defraud some of the country’s most elite universities with rigged entrance exams, fake athletic credentials and bribes.

They got their answer. In Gorton’s first sentencing in the case, he delivered a withering dressing-down and a penalty to match. Macfarlane’s conduct — paying Singer $450,000 to slip his son and daughter into USC as phony athletes — was “devastating,” Gorton said. Macfarlane’s crimes may have been possible because of his wealth, Gorton said, but his actions were no different than those of “a common thief.”

Gorton doubled the sentencing range recommended by the court’s probation department, and committed Macfarlane to prison for six months — the longest sentence handed down in a scandal that erupted in March....

While he didn’t agree with the prosecution’s argument that the high-dollar amount of Macfarlane’s payment should lengthen his sentence, Gorton said Macfarlane’s crimes were nonetheless “serious and caused real harm,” deserving of a harsher sentence than the range recommended by the probation department....

In a sign that defense attorneys see Gorton as handing down harsher sentences than his peers at the courthouse, lawyers for 17 parents charged in the scandal wrote an unusual letter in April to Patti B. Saris, the chief judge for the district of Massachusetts, protesting the government’s intent to add their clients to an indictment that had already been assigned to Gorton.

Calling it “a clear form of judge shopping,” the attorneys said prosecutors so wanted to try their cases before Gorton that they had circumvented the process that assigns cases to judges at random. They qualified their complaint by saying, “To be sure, we deeply respect Judge Gorton.”

But Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, said in a letter of his own that what those attorneys “fail to say — but of course mean — is that they want a different judge because they perceive Judge Gorton as imposing longer sentences in criminal cases than other judges in this district.” Such a gripe, Lelling said, was a “hail Mary by people who know better.” The parents whose attorneys signed the letter were not, in the end, reassigned to a different judge.

Gorton will sentence four parents early next year who reversed their not-guilty pleas last month: Douglas Hodge, the former chief executive of bond giant Pimco; Michelle Janavs, a philanthropist whose family created the Hot Pocket; Manuel Henriquez, a Bay Area financier, and Henriquez’s wife, Elizabeth. The four changed their pleas after coming under pressure from prosecutors, who warned they could be charged with an added felony count of bribery if they didn’t plead.

U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani, who determined punishments for 11 of the 12 parents sentenced before Macfarlane, handed down sentences ranging from no time at all for Peter Sartorio, a Menlo Park, Calif., frozen foods entrepreneur, to five months in prison for Agustin Huneeus, a Napa, Calif., vintner.

A third judge, Douglas P. Woodlock, sentenced Jeffrey Bizzack, a Solana Beach entrepreneur and the longtime business partner of surfer Kelly Slater, to two months in prison.

November 18, 2019 in Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Movements in the Discretionary Authority of Federal District Court Judges Over the Last 50 Years"

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

From my vantage point, judges’ individual control over their courtrooms remains largely stable.  Updated but similar versions of the problems encountered (and created) by Judge Julius Hoffman now confront our newer, younger, and perhaps better qualified judges.  While federal judges may be less likely to encounter radical, overtly political defendants and government officials trying to wrest control (and public opinion) from them in court, they are more likely to see minority defendants along with accompanying “courtwatchers” who want inequities in the criminal justice system noticed in individual cases.  I will first describe the Chicago Eight (soon to become the Chicago Seven) trial and then explain the new courtwatchers in Part I.

I have witnessed federal judges having lost, primarily since the mid-1980s, much of their earlier control over the criminal justice process in general, but in particular over charging and sentencing decisions.  Judicial discretion and control over a criminal trial is obviously less important when 97.2 percent of federal felony sentences are imposed by the district judge pursuant to a guilty plea negotiated between the government and the defendant, and only 2.8 percent of the sentences that judges impose are after a jury or bench trial.  The power players in the criminal justice system are the folks who determine whether to offer a plea and what plea terms to include.  We live in a world of guilty pleas controlled by prosecutors.  Federal prosecutors determine whom to investigate, whom to charge, and how much punishment to impose.  However, the pendulum has begun to swing back, and federal district judge discretion over criminal sentencing is now on the rise.  I will support these observations, as well as offer some good sentencing news post-Booker, in Part II.

Finally, in Part III, I will raise a relatively new phenomenon — federal district court judges imposing nationwide temporary restraining orders against the federal government. Though this last trend is not limited to or primarily about criminal trials, I think it fairly covered by the topic for today — most of these injunctions involve controversial policies that can, like with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals case, lead to criminal charges.  This legal device allows a single federal judge in a single judicial district to determine federal policy for the entire country, at least until the matter can be resolved by the Supreme Court.  This is one of the few areas where I have seen federal district judicial authority expand over the last few decades.  The Supreme Court has taken very recent notice of this trend, and will likely have something to say about the matter soon.

November 18, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

November 17, 2019

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issues stay of execution so trial court can examine Rodney Reed's "Brady, false testimony, and actual innocence claims"

As noted in this prior post, many questions have been raised about the guilt of Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed, who had been scheduled to be executed on November 20.  But, as this Hill piece reports, that execution was stayed late Friday:

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Friday to stay indefinitely the upcoming execution of Texas inmate Rodney Reed, who had been convicted in a 1996 slaying.

Citing an appeal filed by Reed’s attorney’s this week that claimed, among other things, that the state provided false testimony, the court ruled to halt the execution scheduled for Wednesday “pending further order of this Court.”

The decision came shortly after the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on Friday unanimously recommended delaying Reed’s execution.

The developments come amid national scrutiny over Reed’s case, as supporters of the inmate say newly uncovered evidence raises serious doubts about his guilt in the case of the killing of 19-year-old Stacey Stites.

Prosecutors accuse Reed of raping and strangling Stites in Bastrop, Texas, more than 20 years ago. However, in an application for clemency, Reed’s attorneys wrote that new evidence has “contradicted and, in all key respects, affirmatively disproven, every aspect of the State’s expert-based case against Mr. Reed” and implicates Stites’s then-fiance.

Efforts to stop the execution have been aided by high-profile calls from celebrities including Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian West, Oprah Winfrey, Rihanna, Questlove and more.

The TCCA's oder is available at this link, and here is a key passage:

On November 11, 2019, Applicant filed the instant subsequent writ application in the convicting court.  Applicant raises four claims in this application: (1) that the State suppressed exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963); (2) that the State presented false testimony in violation of due process; (3) that Applicant’s trial counsel were ineffective; and (4) that Applicant is actually innocent.

After reviewing the application, we find that Applicant’s Brady, false testimony, and actual innocence claims satisfy the requirements of Article 11.071 § 5.  Accordingly, we remand those claims to the trial court for further development.

November 17, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)